The editors who put together the TV ads for Return to Paradise deserve an Oscar. The spots are suffocating montages of suspense, claustrophobia, and desperation--each one a compressed 30 seconds of overwhelming doom that resonates after it's gone.
Lewis McBride (Joaquin Phoenix), captured on video, his gaunt and haunted face between prison bars, pleads for his life. "As you can see, after vacation things didn't go quite as planned," he musters with scant gallows humor. His voice cracks. "You guys are my last chance." Lewis says that he's well, that he hasn't been tortured, but the shaky image and his shaky voice say something different. Malaysian authorities have busted him for drug trafficking, and he will hang in eight days unless two friends, Sheriff (Vince Vaughn) and Tony (David Conrad), return to Penang and take their share of the responsibility: three-year jail sentences.
If only the movie itself packed such power.
Alas, instead of a gripping, conscience-bending thriller, Paradise plods along, determined to be some sort of master chess game ruminating on personal and cultural value systems and the complex and often contradicting facets of loyalty, honesty, friendship, love, responsibility, self-preservation, and exploitation.
The premise--Do you give yourself up to save someone, especially if your recklessness is to blame?--is solid. But that's not enough for these filmmakers. At every turn, they add another shade to the dilemma, hoping to create an even more complex situation that further blurs the line between right and wrong. For instance, there's a skimpy side plot involving a newspaper reporter (Jada Pinkett) who, despite prostest by Lewis' lawyer, Beth (Anne Heche), insists on breaking the story because she thinks it will help both Lewis and her career. Every now and then Pinkett shows up to confront Heche. Let me do the story. No, you can't. Back and forth the arguments go, without ever driving the story along.
Ultimately, Paradise feels like a drawn-out "what if" game of ethics you play in Philosophy 101 or on besotted nights after you've pondered the gamut of Indecent Proposal scenarios and determined how much money it would take for you to have sex with the grossest person imaginable. While the exercise poses a puzzle that may very well hold the key to your soul, when you're no longer a freshman--or drunk--you need a little more out of your escapist pursuits, especially if you're going to plop down $6.50 and 90 minutes of your life. After all, MTV has existential angst divvied up into four-minute takes and starring the likes of Aerosmith and Brandy.
Not that Heche, Vaughn, and Phoenix lack wattage. Their collective charisma is the only thing that keeps you from saying, "to hell with Lewis," and hanging yourself instead. Heche gamely attempts to be someone so dedicated to her cause that she may be capable of anything, even if that mostly means standing around half-dressed whenever possible just to keep the audience's eyes open.
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Vaughn plays a variation on his aloof, hip, wiseacre persona from Swingers. He's a likable jerk in a tough predicament that he created, unsure which side of his character will ultimately win out, the responsible saint or the practical asshole. We know this because with every scene he ping-pongs on whether he's going back to Malaysia. In one scene he's shedding a tear as he watches Lewis' pleas on videotape. The next he's adamant that he's not going. Then he's sloppy drunk, wandering the streets, spilling his beer, looking as if someone stole his teddy bear. The next scene has him mocking the whole situation. There are subtle, dark, shifty undercurrents to this performance, and it actually gives hope that Vaughn may be able to pull off Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant's upcoming remake of Psycho.
But in the end, Phoenix's portrayal of Lewis is the only truly showy thing about Paradise. In the opening of the film, he's the wispy, unquestionably sweet "tree-hugger" who just wants to do the right thing, be good to the Malaysians, and help orangutans. By the time we see him in prison, he's shattered. For a few brief minutes, Paradise is as harrowing and riveting as those 30-second commercials. But by then, it's too little too late.
--Scott Kelton Jones
Return to Paradise.
Directed by Joseph Ruben. Written by Wesley Strick and Bruce Robinson. Starring Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, and Joaquin Phoenix. Opens Friday.