"Without a Paddle," a low-hanging, late-summer comedy starring Seth Green, Matthew Lillard and Dax Shepard, owes more than just its title to a toilet-related idiom. Halfway up the creek, our heroes encounter a pair of tree-dwelling preservationists whose strict adherence to the Outward Bound pledge to "leave no trace" unexpectedly saves them during an ambush. Also, the familiar expression about the self-evidence of ursine bathroom habits acts as a hinge for a major plot point later. Are you familiar with the expression? Is the pope Catholic?
Directed by Steven Brill, who brought us "Little Nicky" and "Mr. Deeds," the movie is not as scatological as, by rights, it could be — it's just scatological enough. It's also obsessively referential (the '80s are still back!) and often corny, thanks to the overabundance of life lessons tossed in with the stoner jokes and the dead beavers. Despite some agreeably idiotic moments, "Without a Paddle" is also mostly without a rudder. Its few memorable highlights end up floating haplessly in a genial but uninspired and watery plot.
The movie opens with home movies of boyhood friends Jerry (Lillard), Tom (Shepard) and Billy (Anthony Starr) jumping ravines on their bikes and forging lifelong bonds — needless to say, a treehouse is involved — while their less dexterous friend Dan (Seth Green) falls on his face and reaches for his inhaler. That the young Knievels don't just leave Dan in a ditch is an indicator of what's to come in Jay Leggett and Mitch Rouse's script: a three-way love story between two dude's dudes and their little asthmatic buddy. As for the third dude's dude, Billy, he dies suddenly 10 years later in a glamorous parasailing accident, setting the plot in motion.
The last time I was this happy to have a 13-year-old boy sit next to me, I was in the sixth grade and he was wearing a Van Halen T-shirt. By the end of the movie, though, I had revised my image of "Without a Paddle's" intended audience. For one thing, I doubt the boy next to me got much out of the many '80s references. I'd venture that Jerry's exhortation to "Let's not Wang Chung tonight" was lost on him. But in fairness, the boy laughed out loud several times and flashed his adult companion an approving thumb during the closing credits. Although he also said hello to me as he sat down. Maybe he was just a polite kid.
Then again, it's just as likely that through sheer force of big-screen repetition, today's youth is as conversant with such pre-Clintonian artifacts as C-3PO action figures and mix tapes as the previous generation was with "Without a Paddle's" main cultural touchstone, the movie "Deliverance." For late-20ish to mid-30ish moviegoers, John Boorman's vivid 1972 worst-case weekend getaway scenario was never anything but a free-floating referent, unencumbered by context anyway. Which is why the joke about rural Oregon being on "the corner of Podunk and you-got-a-purty-mouth" got a big laugh.
On the cusp of 30, their quarter-life crises in full bloom, Tom, Jerry and Dan return to Oregon for Billy's funeral and wind up embarking on the type of journey of self-discovery usually designed for kids with behavioral problems. Not that these guys don't qualify. Dan — now Dr. Dan Mott — is still phobic, neurotic and socially awkward. Even with an M.D., he can't get a date. Jerry chafes at the constraints of corporate and domestic life. He has a job and lives, reluctantly, with his blond girlfriend, Denise (Bonnie Sommerville), but wishes he could surf all day instead. Tom enjoys an eventful sex life and not much else.
After the funeral, the three friends pay a visit to the old treehouse, where they discover that Billy has been updating their D.B. Cooper file. Cooper, the name given to the legendary parachuter who disappeared in the Oregon woods with $200,000 of stolen money, was a childhood obsession of Billy's. Now that he's gone, Jerry enlists Tom in a plan to honor him by finding the treasure, eventually talking Dan into it too.
Once removed from civilization, Tom, Jerry and Dan encounter, in rapid succession, a corrupt sheriff; a beleaguered Indian; a growling deer; an enormous bear that mistakes Dan for a cub; a pot farm run by two violent rednecks named Elwood and Dennis; their dogs, Lynyrd and Skynyrd; a hippie version of the Barbi twins named Butterfly and Flower; and Burt Reynolds (Hey! Wasn't he in "Deliverance"?) as Cooper's grizzly cohort, Del. The jokes are mostly old frat-boy standards involving pot smoking, the promise of girl-on-girl sex, fecal matter, homophobia and the threat of boy-on-boy rape. Along the way, Dan learns to both loosen and toughen up, Jerry learns to appreciate what he has and Tom resolves to start a new, more fiscally responsible life.
It's not the first time a ragtag trio has emerged from the woods with courage, a heart and a brain. Nor, given the mindless cultural sampling that is required of comedy these days, will it be the last. So as long as we're tossing platitudes around, let's just say this one's not about the destination, either. It's about the journey from boyhood to man-boyhood. What a trip.
'Without a Paddle'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for drug content, sexual material, language, crude humor and some violence
Times guidelines: Drug use, feculence and allusions to rape offset by reminder that love matters over all.
Seth Green...Dr. Dan Mott
A De Line Pictures production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Steven Brill. Producer Donald De Line. Executive Pproducers Richard Vane, Andrew Haas and Wendy Japhet. Screenplay Jay Leggett & Mitch Rouse, story by Fred Wolf and Harris Goldberg & Tom Nursall. Director of Pphotography Jonathan Brown. Editors Debra Neil-Fisher and Peck Prior. Costume Ddesigner Ngila Dicksson. Music Christophe Beck. Production Ddesigner Perry Andelin Blake. Art director Denise Hudson. Set decorator Meg Everist. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
In general release.