Paradise Glossed

Shangri-blah: DiCaprio, some sort of Conradian anti-hero, in The Beach.Photo: Peter Mountain/20th Century Fox

The Beach isn’t just the new Leonardo DiCaprio movie. Following the ensemble dud The Man in the Iron Mask and a cameo in Celebrity, it’s his first big post-Titanic movie. His Titanic co-star Kate Winslet was praised last year for not going the cash-in route; it’s not every day, after all, that one follows Hollywood’s biggest blockbuster with the likes of Hideous Kinky and Holy Smoke. DiCaprio’s latest choice, as it turns out, is in some ways just as shaggy as Winslet’s. (The films share a certain hippie-dippy mind-set.) But just because DiCaprio’s new movie isn’t a crass piece of megafroth doesn’t mean it’s good. You come away from it almost wishing he had done a flat-out commercial job. At least that might have been more invigorating.

DiCaprio plays an American backpacker who shows up in Bangkok itching for something dangerous and unfamiliar. He’s a kid without much of a past. “My name is Richard,” he tells us in a voice-over at the beginning. “What else do you need to know?” The tone is portentous, juvenile, and a bit film noir-ish, and the rest of his narration is in the same vein: He’s one florid flower child. Bunking alone in a cheap hotel, he connects with a bonkers traveler named Daffy (Robert Carlyle), who turns Richard on to a hand-drawn map describing the location of a secret island, a paradise-on-earth. A young French couple in the flophouse, Etienne (Guillaume Canet) and Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen), accompany him by train and boat and, finally, by swimming across an open sea, until they reach an island of dope fields protected by armed guards.

Jumping from the top of a steep waterfall, they escape to what appears to be a coven of multinational drop-outs. Setting up their own back-to-nature encampment, secreted from the world except for the occasional run to Bangkok for supplies, they swim with the sharks and play cricket and teach each other languages; this crowd does everything but sing “Kum-ba-ya” around the campfire. The paradise of a beach that we keep hearing so much about turns out to be a pretty patch of white sand and a lagoon walled in by tall cliffs – alluring, certainly, but no more so than your garden-variety Club Med spread, and without those all-you-can-eat buffets.

The Beach is intended as some kind of Conradian cautionary tale: Richard seeks paradise and ends up in purgatory. Mess with nature at your peril; human beings can’t abide freedom – you know the script by now. Director Danny Boyle and his screenwriter, John Hodge, adapting the novel by Alex Garland, work up a heavy-duty tone of Apocalypse Now-style jungle fever. (A clip from Coppola’s film is shown.) Richard starts out in the Willard role and ends up more like Kurtz, babbling epiphanies and peeking through the dark leaves at the blood sport of mortals. Since Richard is pretty much a cipher all the way through, his descents and ascents don’t pack much emotional oomph. The only real suspense in the movie is when he will break down the supercilious French reserve of Françoise and do the nasty. Their coupling finally commences in a lagoony fizz of glowing plankton.

There’s a terrific, if underexplored, idea here: How might paradise look to the digital-age generation? The answer in The Beach is that every generation pretty much has the same secret-island fantasy, but that isn’t much of a response. What is intended as a universal truth comes across instead as just laziness on the part of the filmmakers. Notwithstanding Richard’s flights of fancy transforming the island into his own private video arcade, Boyle and Hodge come up with few new-style wrinkles on a utopian theme. We’re even handed that ultimate cop-out: Richard informs us that paradise isn’t a place, it’s how you feel inside – which is particularly unhelpful since he doesn’t seem to have much going on inside, either. DiCaprio can be a marvelous actor, and he goes all-out here, but his performance is all blank visionary stares and tantrums. He holds the screen long after we in the audience have let go.

Paradise Glossed