Return to Paradise

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Joseph Ruben

REVIEWED: 09-08-98

For a movie whose premise is an Ethics 101 essay question "Would you give up six years of your life to save a friend from death? "Return to Paradise is surprisingly watchable and even moving. Most of the credit for the film's impact is due to Joaquin Phoenix, who plays an American imprisoned in Malaysia for possession of a brick of hash that his traveling companions (Vince Vaughn and David Conrad) left behind. He's been sentenced to die unless his friends agree to return to the country to serve time.

Phoenix's role might easily have been a clich: the gentle environmentalist facing violent justice. But his courageous portrayal of incipient madness and desperation gives weight to the choice his friends have to make. Anne Heche brings her convincing intensity to the part of the lawyer begging Vaughn and Conrad for help, while Vaughn lends some welcome specificity to his leading role by playing up his less heroic impulses.

Maybe too melodramatic at times, and saddled with an unnecessary media subplot, Return to Paradise nevertheless conjures up the punch of yesterday's "issue" films. (It's a remake of the French film Force Majeure.) It's not on the large, flashy scale of the Oscar hopefuls about to hit fall screens, but some terrific acting from Heche, Vaughn, and especially Phoenix places it among the more satisfying serious films of the summer.

--Donna Bowman

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