Veteran British film director Lewis Gilbert is a dedicated craftsman, having been at the helm of everything from the sassy "Alfie" to the stylish Bond thriller, "The Spy Who Loved Me." But after seeing his new film, "Not Quite Paradise," a clunky comedy-drama set in a kibbutz in the steamy Israeli desert, you get the feeling that he may have been out in the midday sun too long. Saddled with an awkward, uneven script (which writer Paul Kember adapted from his stage play, "Not Quite Jerusalem"), Gilbert delivers a dreary, cliche-ridden film with all the wallop of a sheaf of crumbling parchment paper.
Kember's story is little more than a series of vignettes about six naive young volunteers (all either English or American) who join the kibbutz, looking either for love, adventure or an escape from problems back home. The gang of misfits includes Rothwell T. Schwartz (Todd Graff), a nerdy Jewish kid from New York who lugs a tape recorder around, capturing each historic occasion ("my first look at sacred soil"); Carrie (Selina Cadell), a homely, affected British girl; Angus (Ewan Stewart) a reclusive ex-soldier still reeling from his years in strife-torn Northern Ireland; and Pete (Kevin McNally), a jolly Cockney lad who seems to get on better with his flock of chickens than with the local ladies.
Instead of getting under these characters' skins, the film wanders into all sorts of awful melodramatic territory, offering us weepy confession scenes, a raging fire and a badly staged terrorist incident. To make matters worse, the tale largely focuses on a hopelessly droopy romance between a handsome American kid (Sam Robards) and Gila, a tough sabra beauty (Joanna Pacula) who drives a tractor as if she were practicing for the Darlington 400.
What little chemistry the lovebirds have is undermined by a series of ridiculous amorous images: the best is a flirtatious scene set by a cow pen where a lonely bull morosely paws the dirt, he's been replaced by an artificial insemination machine. The film's score is even loopier; whenever the couple's eyes meet, a host of violins quiver their approval, adorning a musical theme that sounds like a woozy version of "Moon River" recorded about 15 feet underwater.
The film offers such a paucity of intriguing characters or ingenious storytelling that you feel you would have gotten a lot more insight into the volunteers' spirit and struggles by watching a documentary about an actual kibbutz. Some of the acting is excellent--especially Stewart, who shows a war-weary intensity and McNally, a gifted mimic and storyteller with a marvelously expressive face. When he complains about the kibbutz girls' lack of interest, he turns and offers a hilariously longing glance in the direction of a particularly dowdy cow.
But we never really get to know these young adventurers. Their insecurities remain unexplained, their enthusiasm never becomes infectious. "Not Quite Paradise" (MPAA-rated R) tries to show us how lives can be transformed by a shared community, but leaves all of the transformations off-screen. All we see is a well-intentioned dud of a film that plays like a situation comedy: "Love Israeli Style." 'NOT QUITE PARADISE'
A New World Pictures release of an Acorn Pictures production. Producer Lewis Gilbert. Director Gilbert. Writer Paul Kember. Camera Tony Imi. Music Rondo Veneziano. Editor Alan Strachan. Production Design John Stoll. With Joanna Pacula, Sam Robards, Todd Graff, Kevin McNally, Bernard Strother, Selina Cadell, Ewan Stewart, Kate Ingram and Zafrir (cq) Kochanovsky.
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (Under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian.)