Dope Soap

Hash bust morality play runs afoul of overly complicated melodrama in Return to Paradise

Based on a French film of 1990 called Force Majeure, the unhelpfully titled Return to Paradise aspires to be a morality play, one of those stories that makes you fret about what you would do in the same situation. It also wants to be a belated coming-of-age story, the drama of a slacker's redemption, and a love story, too. And like that classic xenophobe's wet dream Midnight Express, it's a movie about American indignation over being caught by the laws of a Third World country. On all of these counts, it manages to be an unusually irritating piece of work.

Three American postcollege goof-offs--architecture grad Tony (David Conrad), sensitive environmentalist Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix) and a cynical working-class New Yorker with the peculiar name of Sheriff (Vince Vaughn)--share a beach house during an aimless, putting-off-adulthood vacation in Malaysia. We're shown about 10 minutes of these three, who met on the trip, partying--smoking inexpensive hash, fooling around with gorgeous young Malaysian nymphs and getting into minor scrapes. Then we see them part company to start their lives.

Two years later, back in New York, Sheriff, now a chauffeur, and Tony, now building skyscrapers, are contacted by Beth (Anne Heche), a young lawyer. She tells them that poor Lewis, who had planned to go to Borneo to work with orangutans, never made it out of Malaysia. Shortly after the other two left, local police busted him with the trio's remaining hash stash, which was so voluminous that Lewis was sentenced as a dealer--to death. Beth has, however, brokered a deal with the Malaysian judge: If either Tony or Sheriff will return to face his share of the charges, he can serve six years in a hellish Penang prison and Lewis will be spared. If both return, each needs to serve only three years.

Morally, the choice is a no-brainer, but realistically, with no legal obligation to go back, it's about as big a sacrifice as one could be asked to make shy of giving up his or her life. For the rest of the film, Sheriff struggles with his dilemma, while--you guessed it--he and Beth overcome their annoyance with each other and begin to fall in love. There's also a media-bashing subplot involving an ambitious reporter (Jada Pinkett Smith) who could screw up the deal if she breaks the story too soon, forcing the Malaysians to carry out the execution to save face.

Any of this has the potential to be interesting, even moving, but almost nothing in the film quite works. The melodramatic situation is so heavily set up--the sweet, decent kid takes the rap; his life is in the hands of the tough guy who prides himself on being a hardhearted, out-for-himself mercenary--that it all feels like exactly that: a setup.

Sadly, it's Vince Vaughn who got suckered by it. Smashing in Swingers, Vaughn left his cocky comic swagger at home for this picture, apparently thinking it would be out of place in serious drama--his performance is joyless and slack. But, boy, could Return to Paradise use a bit of swagger. We're probably supposed to feel that Sheriff's soul is dormant until this call to responsibility shakes it awake.

But without a sense of Sheriff's implied zest for life and freedom, we can't have much feeling for what he stands to give up. Probably the best scene in the film comes when Sheriff tells his troubles to his gruff dad, who bluntly--and only half-jokingly--tells him he should certainly go, because he's wasting his life, anyway, and the kid in prison is almost certainly of more value than he is. It's a funny moment, but what makes it funny is also what makes it hard to care much about Sheriff's fate: We sort of agree with dad.

Heche seemed rather mannered to me while I was watching the film, but the more I thought about the performance, the more I felt that she had done remarkable work with an extremely difficult role. She actually put some thought into what it would be like to ask someone to give up years of his life, and she came up with a mix of sheepishness and desperation that's very believable. Heche is a truly inventive, witty actress--without her, Six Days, Seven Nights would have seemed literally that long--but she needs better material than she's had so far.

Even if the actors were less crimped, even if the dialogue wasn't so flat, Return to Paradise would still grate on the nerves simply because of its middle-class-American solipsism. The film's idea of maturity is the acknowledgement that there may be consequences for acting like an ugly American overseas, yet it never quite escapes the feeling that it regards the threat of prison for these Americans as inherently a bigger deal than it would be for a Malaysian.

Don't misunderstand: I'm not suggesting that anyone deserves to be imprisoned in these conditions, least of all for owning some hash--for that matter, I think that drug laws and penal conditions in the U.S. are idiotically Draconian and counterproductive. But I don't see why I should be more touched by an American's prison sufferings than by a Malaysian's--yet the film offers barely a glimpse of the lives of the native inmates.

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