Among other charms, Miami has very little in common with the rest of the U.S. It's a Disney World devoted to decadence and twisted family values, a festering tank town hacked out of the swamps and overrun by psychotics, crooks, and visionary hustlers. In this tropical gulag of American exile, a Devil's Island for the world's excrescence, the dime-store dichotomy of cheap reality and that old black magic of illusion can be found anywhere. We're exotic and all that, but Miami does share one quality with other cities: The citizens can be divided into two rough groups -- those who like to go out at night and those who don't.

Of course, this being Miami, both strata of residents are obliged to pursue their particular viewpoints to an excessive degree. Those who avoid most nocturnal interactions assume, erroneously, that the mere act of remaining at home confers some sort of exalted moral stature. Staying in the house can be a limiting experience and it's nothing to brag about, unless you've earned the right to be totally over everything -- as was the case with Halston and Noel Coward A or you're blessed with enough juice to import society, like Louis XIV, Hugh Hefner, or Bill Clinton.

Party people, people who need people, remain engaged in life, although too much social engagement steadily chips away at the soul, puts you in an abyss where things are hollow and stupendously insignificant. Even in the void, though, the professionals are cooler than the fools they suffer, and they learn a few things along the way. When you go out and use the city, flail against the ramparts, the very nature of Miami -- wild-eyed, absurd, rough, and rewarding -- stays in your face and you become one with the city. Eventually you learn to embrace the chaos, with all other places paling by comparison. If you're not going to go out, you might as well live in Ocala.

For thirteen years the opening-night gala for the Miami Film Festival has served as a social litmus test for the city. It's that rare arena in which rank amateurs -- comped losers of limited usefulness, corporate yahoos on the big night out, rubes and wanna-be glamourpusses -- mingle with the veterans, who cling to memories of the grand affairs at Vizcaya. A decade ago the film festival was the only celebrity action in town. And over the years there have been some personal high points: a triumphant Divine at the Hairspray premiere, shortly before he passed into drag queen heaven, and an illuminating discussion with Susan Sontag in a buffet line, during which I desperately tried to follow a conversation about dialectical materialism, the nature of photography, and the metaphors of cancer.

Lately the festival has been a series of diminishing social returns interspersed with some interesting movies, although it may be a bit too partial to Peruvian tone poems for my taste. The vibe before opening night, given last year's disaster at the Hotel Inter-Continental for Miami Rhapsody, suggested a pass on the festivities. But then the opening movie this time around was Two Much, shot in Miami and featuring Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith, the most overhyped movieland couple since Liz Taylor and Richard Burton got together on the Cleopatra set. As Miami becomes an extension of the lifestyle hell that is Los Angeles, with filmmakers chewing on every scrap of fabulized and trivialized real estate, there's a pop historical imperative afoot in town. We're all nothing but extras on a floating movie set now, although the real essence of Miami -- considering bizarre monstrosities such as The Perez Family -- seems to defy Hollywood: Scarface might forever remain the definitive portrait of our civic character.

The Two Much premiere at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts followed the usual ritualized pageantry. Despite having covered the festival every single year, I once again found myself in the New Jersey section of the balcony, the usual stringers from the Des Moines Gazette and Bosnia Today granted prestige seats on Fifth Avenue. A local prophet without honor -- or pride, for that matter -- I went downstairs and corrected the protocol oversight. Thankfully, a kindly usherette extended her benevolence, and while ensconced in the power section I encountered Two Much coproducer Ted Field, who provided a high-L.A. sound bite: "You'll be at the party, right? We'll talk."

Showtime, the endless "whereas . . . whereas" talk and proclamations sweeping over the stupefied audience. Finally Danny Aiello and director Fernando Trueba of Two Much were introduced; Trueba debuted the wonderful Belle Epoque in Miami two years ago and proved that opening-night films don't have to be bad. In Spanish, Trueba saluted artistic integrity and his muy caliente stars, Banderas and Griffith: "I hope you have as much fun with the movie as they did." The couple walked onstage holding hands, Banderas A the hardest working hunk in the business A kicking off public relations duty: "Four times I come to Miami for the festival and I just love it. In this movie Miami is another character, and Two Much is dedicated to Miami to make the people happy." Griffith, looking sharp in a black velvet pantsuit, channeled a little Liz and Gracie Allen into her brief remarks: "I'm very bad at this, but I hope you like Two Much as much as I did -- it changed my life."

That may be, but the movie is foolish, dull, and unfunny, light to the point of nonexistence, and it's not going to help anybody's career. It's interesting to watch local landmarks transmogrified by artifice -- what happened to all the droolers and cat ladies on Lincoln Road? -- but the experience of Miami, yet again, eludes an out-of-town artist. Two Much is supposed to be a lighthearted romp in the Billy Wilder vein, and God knows Miami's one big screwball comedy, but there's something lost in the translation. In the movie, an art dealer named Art Dodge (Banderas) takes up with Griffith's character, an heiress who's divorced from Aiello-as-wiseguy. Banderas, smitten by Griffith's sister, played by Daryl Hannah, impersonates an imaginary twin brother to win Hannah's heart. Eventually he's popping both sisters, every man's dream come true.

Of course, from a hype-meets-art-versus-life standpoint, Two Much is a diverting exercise in tabloid history. In the late Miami Vice era, the press was always chronicling the reconciliations of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, the dysfunctional couple of the decade. Years later, as Two Much was being filmed here, I kept running into Hannah and Banderas -- a much-promoted family man -- draped over one another in clubs. Out of nowhere Griffith entered the picture, and the resultant alchemy of publicity made Banderas a star in the Hugh Grant mold. But no man is a hero to his wife, especially in Banderas's case.

In the end, though, bad movies and worse gossip are always better than a dull party, and the apräs celebrations at the NationsBank Tower had a convocation-of-the-damned quality. As usual, an unreasonable lynch mob out of Bad Day at Black Rock backed up at the elevators to the sky lobby, herded around like testy livestock. Upstairs the panoramic views were ignored in favor of the buffet tables, the guests turning really ugly. Griffith and Banderas had long since hopped a jet to Argentina, where he is shooting Evita with Madonna, and overall the party seemed to be a celeb-free trade zone. Although an Italian friend did introduce me to Danny Aiello; all Italians seem to know one another. Aiello, a sweetheart of the first rank, is a credit to humanity in general: "That was the first time I saw the movie. It makes me so nervous to watch myself. It's kind of light, nothing serious, different than what I usually do. What do you mean I look too nice to play a wiseguy? Get out of here with that stuff."

From there it was the chaos of the anonymous, one woman of a vast social circle rendered judgment on aesthetic perfection (a neo-Bridesheadian type with green hair, pink bathmat jacket, a teddy bear), and on all that was beyond the pale: "I'm from the gutter, but most of these people are disgusting. Still, even disgusting people shouldn't be treated like cattle. The same trash went to Vizcaya, but at least then we were all somewhere nice. This sloppy mess should be shot and put out of its misery. But since you're the biggest shit-pusher in Miami, you'll probably make it seem like something."

No doubt she'll be back next year, as all of us will, holding on to the chimeras of the night, the Holy Grail of fun. And there were a few entertaining moments at the Two Much affair, after I'd pushed some shit around, dodged anti-publicists, skirted a woman hurling in a planter, and went off on some lame Junior Leaguer who made a stink over having her drink spilled. A little friction and fuss is part of the program, as are the simple graces of nightlife. Ultimately the mere act of going out, anywhere and nowhere, can be deliverance enough.