'Return to Paradise' Is A Needlessly Dumbed-Down Bore.
By Stacey Richter
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 suck.
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?
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