Dope Soap

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

This mollycoddling gets even more specific: Joaquin Phoenix, who was heartbreaking as the doltish high schooler duped into murder in To Die For, is good again here, but his role is pushed at us too hard as saintly, as if we couldn't be persuaded to care about Lewis if he were just an ordinary kid who'd done something dumb. He's like Private Ryan--his delicate American innocence is worth any loss among his profane rescuers.

None of this, however, is as insufferable as the introduction of the romance between Beth and Sheriff. Even if there were chemistry between Vaughn and Heche--there isn't--the implication that love is what makes Vaughn decide to do the right thing is reductive to the movie's own moral scheme. God forbid he should do it just because it's the right thing.

There are a couple of good scenes. Lewis and Sheriff's meeting in the cell is inevitably powerful, and Heche has a nice comic moment when she's confronted with Sheriff's angry girlfriend (Elizabeth Rodriguez) in a bar.

There's nothing wrong with the look and the atmosphere of the film. The journeyman director, Joseph Ruben, is one of the better craftsmen around, but he keeps getting stuck with one crappy assignment after another--dreck like The Good Son and Sleeping With the Enemy and Money Train. He's made some good films, as well--the agreeable sci-fi picture Dreamscape, the masterly satirical psychothriller The Stepfather, True Believer. That credulity-straining but hugely enjoyable liberal whodunit, built around James Woods at his live-wire funniest, was about two lefty lawyers trying to get a wrongly convicted Korean-American kid out of an American prison. Without any trumped-up quandaries, it still managed to be a far more complexly moral tale than Return to Paradise. It's a lot more entertaining, too.

Return to Paradise
Directed by Joseph Ruben; with Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, David Conrad and Jada Pinkett Smith.


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