Sometimes you can't wake up.
The bad dream holds you there until you choke awake with a nasty gurgle. But you can shake the feeling. What would cause that feeling in real life? "Return to Paradise" has one of the most by-the-throat hooks I've seen in a recent movie.
The first twenty minutes of this engaging melodrama, directed by Joseph Ruben from a screenplay by Bruce Robinson and Wesley Strick, set up a peaceful world. Three Americans just out of college, Sheriff (Vince Vaughn), Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix) and Tony (David Conrad), meet and become friends while loafing through Asia. They part after a month in Malaysia where they've met women, swam, smoked a little hashish, with Sheriff and Tony leaving the intensely moral Lewis behind with his plans to join a program to return orangutans to the wild.
Two years later, back in New York, Sheriff and Tony learn that Louis has been in prison for the chunk of hash they left behind, accused of being a trafficker. Anne Heche is Lewis' lawyer, and she presents this "Sophie's Choice" to the pair: Come back to Malaysia and stand trial, and you'll spend three to six years in prison. Stay in your comfortable world and Lewis will be hanged in a week.
"Return to Paradise" began as a French film, "Force Majeure," and the gifted Robinson ("Withnail & I," "The Killing Field") adapted it to direct at Disney where it eventually entered the vast limbo of unmade scripts.
Enter Ruben, who collaborated with Strick on "True Believer" ten years earlier. There are scenes where information is marshaled with only elemental dispatch, yet the acting brings the strange dilemma to life, with indelibly fresh and vivid performances from Vaughn, Phoenix and Heche.
The skinny, boyish screenwriter was sent the script in December 1996. "This came out of the blue. Something of mine fell apart, and over the Christmas holidays Joe sent me the script. I read Bruce's draft just before I went to bed and I had terrible nightmares. There was something about that situation that was just so horrific, so scary. Bruce's story plays out differently and I knew we had to change the third act. But I woke up in a cold sweat and knew I had to do it. It's rare that you are given a project that has such an immediate, intense emotional charge."
Strick has worked largely as a script doctor on films like "Face/Off" and "Batman Returns." "I get offered a lot of rewrites," the 44-year-old studio veteran says. "I do a lot of script doctoring, production drafts of movies. Because I've done so many of these, at this point I'm looking for a script like this that grabs me at an emotional level."
The work is painstaking, but impersonal, making sure that plot details dovetail, the dialogue makes its points cleanly, that character inconsistencies are minimized. "It's everything you can imagine including, 'We've just lost ten days of the schedule so figure out how to take out twenty pages and still have a coherent movie.' That sort of stuff," he says, laughing. "'We have five million less that we thought; so how do make the sequence work without the motorboat?' Lately I've been turning down a lot of that stuff. There's a satisfaction in fixing and cleaning it up, but you don't get to pour your heart or guts into it."
He's pleased with what he was able to pour into "Return to Paradise." "It sounds a little self-serving, but when Joe showed me the rough cut, I actually cried at the end. That's never happened to me before, that I've been emotionally affected by something I've worked on. When I watch something I've written, I just cringe, I see all the flaws, everything I should have done or could have done. In this experience, I got sucked into it. I've never set out to tell a touching story before. Most of my stories are darker, more cynical. This is a dark movie in its own way, but ultimately it's hopeful."
Ruben and Strick knew that casting was key to getting the film made, and Strick wrote with certain performers in mind. "We talked about Vince very early," Strick says. "The first day we sat together at my house, we talked about the movie for a couple of hours and batted around the idea of Vince as Sheriff, because we'd both just seen 'Swingers.' We went for lunch to this restaurant that's close to me. We sat down in a booth and about a minute later, Vince sat down in the next booth with a couple of friends and we got to study him for about an hour. We were eavesdropping. 'What do you think, can he do it, is that Sheriff?' It was funny. It was destiny."