‘Paradise’: A Prison Potboiler With Serious Intent
The plot of “Return to Paradise” sounds like the subject of a late-night college dormitory conversation, the kind where implausible situations are given serious consideration. If you could meet anyone in history, who would it be? If you could ensure world peace by giving up sex, would you do it? That kind of thing.
The question here is a little more specific: If you could save the life of someone you knew by voluntarily spending a few years in prison, would you turn yourself in and invite the police to turn the key? And, if an attorney as attractive and dynamic as Beth Eastern, played by Anne Heche, asked you to do it, how much of a difference would that make?
That dilemma is faced by a pair of New Yorkers who probably would never have met if it wasn’t for the random camaraderie of post-college travel. Sheriff (Vince Vaughn) is a self-described scam artist, while Tony (David Conrad) is a well-mannered engineering student from a comfortable background.
For five vacation weeks in Malaysia, these two, plus gentle Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix), a tree-hugger whose idea of fun is reintroducing the orangutan into Borneo, become the closest of pals. We see them in extended flashbacks, using drugs, chasing women, calling one another “bro” and acting alternately oblivious to and contemptuous of the local population.
Cut to two years later, with Sheriff still hustling as a limo driver and Tony rising in his profession and engaged to a chic young woman. Into their lives comes attorney Eastern, who tells them that a combination of bad luck and their own culpability has put her client and their old bro Lewis into a Malaysian prison.
Worse than that, in exactly eight days, Lewis will be executed as a drug dealer unless they return to that erstwhile paradise, admit to drug use and spend time in prison. How much time? Three years if they both come back, six if only one makes the trip. As the days tick away on screen, the men have a heck of a choice to make.
Director Joseph Ruben, a man with a definite gift for the melodramatic, was the appropriate choice for this project. In films like “True Believer,” “The Stepfather” and “Sleeping With the Enemy,” Ruben has made a career out of involving audiences in far-fetched material and he tries his best here.
Working from a script by Wesley Strick and Bruce Robinson (which in turn was based on a little-seen French film called “Force Majeur”), Ruben has ensured that “Return” was well-cast (Jada Pinkett Smith is noteworthy as a take-no-prisoners journalist, as is Phoenix in his role) and added as much energy to scenes as he can.
But though the Strick-Robinson script is solid from line to line, the film’s plot is finally too implausible for anyone to rescue. Starting with the unlikely situation described above, it gets unlikelier and unlikelier as it unfolds, with twists and surprises (some of which are not really surprising) piling up to an unnerving extent.
Vaughn’s self-involved Sheriff, “Mr. I Look Out for No. 1,” is superficially similar to his character in the successful “Swingers.” But Vaughn turns out to be not the most convincing guy to be having a crisis of conscience on screen.
Counterbalancing his uncertainty, Heche does the best acting in the picture, giving a sharp and focused performance as a passionate advocate who cares terribly about saving her client. More and more, Heche is becoming one of those rare actresses who can be counted on to bring credibility to every film she’s in, and “Return to Paradise” benefits greatly from her intensity.
But even Heche’s work is no match for the film’s fatal tendency to take itself more seriously than the material merits. A potboiler where Heche’s character answers the phone in her underwear because she looks cute in foundation garments should not be confusing itself with a Human Rights Watch manifesto. If it’s to be experienced at all, “Return to Paradise” is best seen as a lively piece of pulp, not a profound exploration of the vagaries of the human soul.
* MPAA rating: R, for language, drug content, some sexuality and a scene of violence. Times guidelines: scenes of harsh prison conditions and a graphic execution scene.
‘Return to Paradise’
Vince Vaughn: Sheriff
Anne Heche: Beth Eastern
Joaquin Phoenix: Lewis
David Conrad: Tony
Jada Pinkett Smith: M.J. Major
A Propaganda Films production in association with Tetragram, released by Polygram Films. Director Joseph Ruben. Producers Alain Bernheim, Steve Golin. Executive producers David Arnold, Ezra Swerdlow. Screenplay by Wesley Strick and Bruce Robinson. Cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos. Editors Andrew Mondshein, Craig McKay. Costumes Juliet Polcsa. Music Mark Mancina. Production design Bill Groom. Art director Dennis Bradford. Set decorator Betsy Klompus. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.