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.

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.

Rated

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