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Return to Paradise

Review: 'Return to Paradise' a repeat offender

Web posted on: Monday, August 24, 1998 4:03:26 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I really wanted to like this one, honest I did. "Return to Paradise" is one of those rare modern movies that tries to deal with that most outdated of American thought processes -- pondering a moral question.

I know that most people these days can't deal with stuff like that unless it focuses on something lewd (like the fear of presidential zipper etiquette miraculously bringing down an entire republic) but it sure is a nice thing to see on the screen again. That's why it's so disappointing that the film's script posits an interesting question, then proceeds to ask it again -- so many times, and at precisely the same angle -- I finally thought I would throttle somebody.

This is a major example of a good idea, one that could have worked, being submitted to a Hollywood tag-team makeover. The offending writers, in this case, are Wesley Strick (who's responsible for "Cape Fear," easily the most ludicrous thing Martin Scorsese's ever been involved in) and Bruce Robinson. Considering the storytelling mess that we've got here, I wouldn't be surprised if these two "co-writers" have never even laid eyes on each other.

Clip - "The Bike Ride": 2.7Mb QuickTime
Entire trailer: 3.1Mb QuickTime

Cast comes through

At the very least, most of the cast comes through with flying colors. Vince Vaughn (who's growing with every performance) stars as Sheriff, an unfortunately nicknamed, unambitious limo driver who's enjoying a vacation in Malaysia with a couple of American friends he picked up during his lengthy visit. Tony (David Conrad) is an ambitious building engineer, and Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix, in a brief, bravura appearance) is a Greenpeace do-gooder who hopes to save endangered orangutans after his friends return to the States.

The three amigos have been partying lavishly while in Malaysia, enthusiastically working out with drugs and prostitutes every night. When the time comes for Sheriff and Tony to leave, Sheriff casually tosses a brick of unused hashish into the garbage can in front of Lewis' hut.

After they get back to Manhattan, Sheriff and Tony fall back into their daily routines, fondly recalling Lewis' friendship and unwavering idealism. The story now comes to rest on Sheriff, after he's more or less wasted his life doing nothing for two years.

A moral dilemma posed ... and posed

One night, though, his world is thrown into an uproar. A lawyer (Anne Heche, solid in a laughably unbelievable role) confronts Sheriff with some disturbing news. Shortly after Sheriff and Tony left Malaysia, police found the discarded drugs in Lewis' trash. He's been rotting away in a prison cell since then. He's only recently mentioned his friends' role in acquiring the contraband as a last-ditch effort to be released.

Though it was a negligible amount of the drug by American standards, it's enough to have Lewis executed in eight days if his buddies don't return and accept three years apiece for their part in the crime. If only one of them returns, the new prisoner will serve six years. One of them must come back, either way, or Lewis will die.

Man, how's that for a premise?! It's not Batman trying to defrost Arnold Schwarzenegger, that's for sure. But then the repetition kicks in, and, once you get tired of the repetition, there's more repetition. Then an absurd romance, and an absurd plot twist. Then more repetition. The overall effect is that of sitting in a classroom while a professor works out an algebra problem on the blackboard, only to erase it after he's come to a conclusion and start over again at "given." And he does it for two hours.

Sheriff, you see, is of weak moral fiber. Tony, who has much more to lose by going back than his friend does (he now has a beautiful fiancée), is nonetheless leaning towards sacrificing himself for Lewis. Sheriff, though, feels like he should go, then feels like he shouldn't, then feels like he should, then feels like he shouldn't, then feels like he wants to kiss the lawyer, then feels like he shouldn't, then feels like he should go, then feels like he shouldn't.

This is the first screenplay I've ever seen that seems to be based on a hamster exercise wheel. 'Round and 'round we go, with no end in sight.

Awkward, unlikely romance

This is infuriating enough, but an eventual and highly unlikely romance between Vaughn and Heche's characters absolutely shouts "awkward plot device." Dismayed, I turned to my friend (who saw the movie with me) when the smooching kicked into gear. He was already shaking his head and chuckling before I had the chance to get sarcastic. I then determined that I was either losing my touch, or this thing, which started out rather promisingly, was getting incredibly silly.

At any rate, I was still enjoying the actors. Even that, though, becomes a chore when we get introduced to a poorly written newspaper reporter (just as miserably played by an out-of-her-element Jada Pinkett Smith) who wants to spread the story across the front page, even though Heche is convinced that this will seal Lewis' fate. She thinks the Malaysian government will want to make an example out of him, immediately hanging him by his Ugly American neck if the story appears in the papers. Never mind that this would likely cause a huge international ruckus; Heche is convinced.

Things pick up in a big way when one or both of the friends (I don't want to ruin the best part of the movie for you) return to Malaysia and meet with Lewis. Phoenix is truly great, looking like he's been run through a wringer every day for two years, babbling endlessly about the absence of God in his prison cell. (This guy is dating Liv Tyler, so he's obviously acting.)

The ending is not what you're expecting, especially in light of the poorly oiled mechanical quality of the rest of the script, but I was finally happy to see it all wrap up.

I'd done my time.

"Return to Paradise" features unashamed drug use, prostitutes, nudity, and bad language. Personally, I found the plot twists to be more offensive than any of that stuff. A lot of critics are comparing this to "Midnight Express," but the biggest similarity between the two movies is the unwavering commitment to the idea that anybody who isn't an American is nasty, dirty, and vindictive. Rated R. 109 minutes.

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