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‘Light of Day’ (PG-13)

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 06, 1987

Paul Schrader's "Light of Day" is crippled by its confused intentions, a crazy quilt of the good, the bad and the ugly. Schrader remains one of the few filmmakers from the American New Wave of the early '70s who continue to work in his characteristic vein -- always serious, always idiosyncratic, always identifiably Schrader. But somewhere in the process he seems to have gotten lost. You sense him groping for, well, the light of day.

At its heart, "Light of Day" concerns the emotional tugs of war within a Calvinist family in the Midwest, the Rasnicks. Patti (Joan Jett) is an unwed mother, a rebel in constant conflict with her deeply religious mom (Gena Rowlands). Dad (Jason Miller) is such a weak presence, he might as well phone in. So it's up to Patti's younger brother Joe (Michael J. Fox) to try to keep the family together.

When she's not merely squabbling with her mother, Patti channels her hostility into rock 'n' roll, which is where the missteps begin. "Light of Day" would appear to be a personal statement for Schrader, reflecting the role of his own Calvinist upbringing in his formation as an artist. While musicians have a more obvious audience appeal than filmmakers -- nobody would show up for "The Paul Schrader Story" -- it might have occurred to Schrader that rock 'n' roll can't carry the dramatic weight that the story requires of it. Certainly, Jett can't bring to life the kind of intellectual justifications that Schrader puts in her mouth.

And what are Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett doing in a movie about a garage band? You can quibble with the performances -- Fox is good natured but negligible, Jett has the undeniable presence and force of a natural performer, but no nuance -- but such a discussion misses the central point. Which is that by casting a TV phenomenon and a rock star, Schrader has taken a Paul Schrader film and made it into a Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett movie.

As a result, the scenes where the two make music, or where Jett brays "Music is all that matters|" seem less like the desperation of blue-collar kids than those old movies where Mickey Rooney says, "Hey kids, let's put on a show|"; it doesn't help that Fox, even at his best, is no more than a shaggy update of Rooney. Worse, with those names on the marquee, the documentary-style effects -- the use of hand-held camera, the careless framing, the flat, unadorned lighting -- simply make no sense. The texture of real life violates the expectations of a star vehicle, so that all of the daring of Schrader and his cinematographer, John Bailey, comes across as mere sloppiness.

It's tempting to suggest that Schrader the writer has been sabotaged by Schrader the director, but the script is schizzy, too. Schrader embraces teen jargon with the verve of a John Hughes, although we haven't reached the point where comparisons to Hughes are high praise -- not yet, anyway. More to the point, what the heck is Schrader doing writing a John Hughes movie?

And yet there are moments in "Light of Day" in which Schrader has done some of his best writing ever; in a career that includes "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull," that's saying a lot. The chill that Schrader gives you when the mother tells Joe, "I just thank God He gave me two children," or when a griever at a wake winds the watch on a cadaver's wrist, are beyond the reach of most other screen writers. And in these moments, Schrader achieves a depth of feeling that has, till now, been beyond him, too.

But the gold in "Light of Day" only makes the movie's dross all the more aggravating. With the film's big-star glamor, its teen heroics and its silly whodunit structure (you're finally told who put Patti in the family way), Schrader seems to have done everything he could to cheapen his own art. And sadly, most of the wrong decisions in "Light of Day" seem to have been made for reasons of money. The movie stands as an admonition that making great movies isn't merely a matter of talent, but a matter of will.

"Light of Day" contains profanity and sexual themes.

Copyright The Washington Post

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