Milk Money

(Richard Benjamin, USA, 1994)


Milk Money is a film which poses an interesting problem to critics like me. A lot of reviewers, when they don't like a film, tend to wheel out an old barrow of bogey words: formulaic, stereotypical, clichéd. But formula, stereotype and cliché are not necessarily bad things in and of themselves.

Milk Money is nothing but formula, stereotype and cliché. It's not a subversive entertainment like Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1989), nor an exceptionally playful film like Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994). It's simply an excellent movie within completely normal, completely conventional, completely innocuous limits. And that's sometimes worth celebrating.

Advance indications from overseas about Milk Money were a little confusing. First of all, it sounded like the raunchy teen comedy Porky's (Bob Clark, 1981), with a group of adolescent boys pooling their pennies to buy their first prostitute. Then a report suggested that it was a romantic comedy in the vein of Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990), with a prostitute finding love with an ordinary, down-the line kinda guy. Yet another report compared the project to Vincente Minnelli's The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963), with a charming, precocious boy strenuously contriving to pair off his sensitive, widowed Dad. To top things off, it was announced that the director of the project was Richard Benjamin, whose last atrocity (Made in America, 1993) asked African-Americans to welcome whites into their lives as loving, benevolent saviours.

But Milk Money turns out to be a skilful mixture of humour, intrigue, romance and pop culture cleverness. The prostitute in question is V (Melanie Griffith). V is discovered by young Frank (Michael Patrick Carter) in the course of an expedition to the big, bad city with his mates. This is the Porky's element, but Porky's this sure ain't – Frank is so sweet and innocent he covers his eyes when V uncovers her breasts. Instead of a pubescent libido, Frank has a familial mission: he wants to pair V off with his Dad, Tom (Ed Harris).

There are pimps and crime bosses doing mildly nasty things in the margins of this plot, but the focus is firmly on V's comic misadventures in leafy suburbia. Benjamin unfurls the full cliché here: the main street of this town is a gentle paradise of white fences, kids on bicycles and soothing muzak. But, mercifully, the film undercuts the cliché, by having V size up this fantasy-land with a withering line: "It looks like TV."

The classic situation of a crim holed up in suburbia can be inflected in many different ways, leading variously to prickly thrillers like Desperate Hours (Michael Cimino, 1990) or manic satires like The Ref (Ted Demme, 1994). Milk Money takes a gentler route, weaving the romance of V and Tom around a thread of comic misunderstanding. Along the way, John Mattson's script manages to work in a smidgin of greenie politics and a dollop of '50s nostalgia.

It is curious to watch Griffith in this film and remember her part, as the punk porno actress in Brian De Palma's Body Double (1984). There, she was profane, sarcastic, tacky, full of beans. As a prostitute in Milk Money, she is unbelievably sweet, clean and innocent. Not even Shirley MacLaine was this goody-goody when she played such parts thirty years ago. Prostitutes have turned into strange fantasy figures in American cinema since the success of Pretty Woman. David Thomson noted that Julia Roberts ushered in a new popular archetype: an Audrey Hepburn who gave head. Griffith in this movie hardly even takes her top off. But this is part of the whole tone of Milk Money, which avoids grossness at all costs. It's a sexless movie about prostitution, a bloodless movie about organised crime.

The craft of a film like this can often be gauged by what it successfully skirts – the difficult areas it raises but does not really want to go into. A highlight of Milk Money is the scene where Frank persuades V to participate in a sex education demonstration at school. Having locked the teacher out, Frank draws a discreet diagram of reproductive organs on V's exposed belly. But as soon as he says, "Now for sexual intercourse – any volunteers?", the teacher bursts in and V skips out the window.

MORE Benjamin: Downtown

© Adrian Martin February 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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