WHEN I READ the slogan on the promotional material for
Return to Paradise, I knew this movie was trouble: "Give
up three years of their life or give up the life of their friend.
They have eight days to decide." Didn't we already do this
story problem in fifth-grade math? Besides, they have it wrong.
A more pertinent question is: At $7.50 a ticket, how many items
of clothing do these very good-looking actors have to remove to
make 109 minutes of this movie bearable?
The answer is all of them. Return to Paradise is an overly
earnest romance story tarted up as a coming-of-age adventure tale
that doesn't do justice to any of its aspirations. It's mediocre
and a little preachy, even though it doesn't really find anything
or anyone to preach against (except maybe tiny Jada Pinkett, who
plays an overeager newspaper reporter). There is nothing more
disheartening for a critic than mediocrity. What's the fun of
evaluating something if the verdict is that it's just sort of
okay? The sad condition in the plex is still this: Movies as group
are a wonderful and vivid form of art, but most individual movies
Return to Paradise is especially disappointing because
it seems like it could have been a lot better. The premise is
fakey but intriguing: Three American guys on vacation in Malaysia
become fast friends, bonding over hashish and culture shock. Two
go back to the states, while one guy named Lewis (played by Joaquin
Phoenix) stays behind to "reintroduce orangutans into the
Borneo jungle." The question then becomes: How many oragutans
would Lewis have to "introduce" to the wild to justify
the terrible fate that befalls him? Because he gets thrown into
Malaysian prison on the basis of the hashish his American buddies
left behind in their rented bungalow.
Lewis is nice and cares for nature. Also, he doesn't have cheap,
fun sex with Malaysian girls like his buddies do. In real life
of course, this wouldn't be important, but in Hollywood-land there
is still a potent, unspoken, and completely corny sense of morality
running through most movie plots. Since Lewis is chaste, even
childlike, we can be sure he deserves all the efforts of rescue
his plight evokes. But I sort of wished they had saved us the
trouble by hiring some guy off the street and hanging a sign around
his neck that says "I am a nice guy." That's about all
the characterization Lewis gets, anyway.
Meanwhile, his buddies have returned to the States to enjoy the
pleasures and beers of the First World. But as it turns out Malaysia's
court system is far stricter than ours, and Lewis has been sentenced
to hang for drug trafficking. Anne Heche plays the gutsy young
lawyer who has to tell his buddies Tony (David Conrad) and "Sheriff"
(Vince Vaughn) that if they return and take their share of the
blame, and spend three years of their lives in a nasty Third World
prison, Lewis' life will be spared.
We are now 30 minutes into the movie. One character has been
incarcerated and two others have been served with a moral ultimatum.
Will they do unto others as they would like to be done unto?
Though this set-up is contrived, it does pose a true dilemma.
Spending three years in a dirty prison is a particularly horrible
proposition for these comfortable and self-absorbed guys whose
idea of sacrifice is picking up the tab at a restaurant.
Unfortunately, director Joseph Ruben and screenwriters Bruce
Robinson and Wesley Strick never really figure out how to fully
dramatize this dilemma. Return to Paradise could have been
a complex character study, but it's not. It could have been a
lively examination of the complacency of First World privilege,
but it isn't. Instead, it turns into a love story set against
a dramatic, exotic background.
In this way Return to Paradise isn't all that different
than 6 Days, 7 Nights, the early-summer Heche flick (she
seems to have used the same wardrobe of sundresses for each).
Return to Paradise focuses on the budding romance between
Sheriff--played with sexy menace by Vince Vaughn from Swingers--and
the lawyer Beth, played by Heche. Meanwhile, the other characters
become cartoonlike and expendable. It's disheartening to watch
social and political concerns slowly become a backdrop for a not-even-very-steamy
romance. By the end of the movie I felt cheated and a little used,
like maybe the makers of this movie thought the audience couldn't
handle too much, so they tried to dumb it down and make it easy.
Is it worth giving up two hours of your life for this?