DiCaprio finds trouble in Paradise

Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Alex Garland‘s novel The Beach is borne into theaters on a tidal wave of impossibly heightened expectations. It has to please at least three distinct moviegoing constituencies — fans of Leonardo DiCaprio, of Boyle’s Trainspotting and of Garland — whose members would probably not much enjoy being trapped together on the same busted elevator.

Garland‘s novel about Gen-X backpackers and their nightmares in a Thai island paradise is simplistic, shallow and very entertaining (it has its own cadre of wall-eyed adherents), and on paper should make a perfect fit with the team that made Trainspotting. The novel synthesized elements of Joseph Conrad filtered through Apocalypse Now, a soupcon of defanged J.G. Ballard, and the Graham Greene of The Quiet American and A Burnt-Out Case — all coated with a patina of video-game and Nam-movie motifs to make a Lord of the Flies–cum–Deliverance for the Nintendo generation.

From all this Boyle has crafted an intermittently gripping, good-looking movie. But will this grim recipe please DiCaprio’s female fans? The potential rise of a rabid bobbysoxer demographic was one reason DiCaprio was nervous about doing Titanic. Ironically, that sector of the audience is the one that will probably end up underwriting The Beach‘s success — even as one suspects that the film was specifically designed to thin out the Leo fan herd by alienating the entire subscription base of Seventeen magazine. (This might have been more efficiently achieved had DiCaprio taken the lead in American Psycho, to which he was briefly attached.) The Beach comes on all spiky and harsh, yet it ends up revealing not our darkest selves, but a sticky, soft center.

Then there’s the group that believes DiCaprio was a great actor long before he came under the lash of James (“Call me Ahab”) Cameron. And so he was: In This Boy‘s Life, Robert De Niro was roundly bulldozed off the screen by the 18-year-old tyke, and DiCaprio’s mentally handicapped younger brother in What‘s Eating Gilbert Grape is a miracle of controlled sympathy. This group sees Titanic as an aberration, and is hoping that The Beach will mark the return of the real Leo.

The filmmakers have their fans, too, with their own expectations. Boyle, his screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald are looking to redeem their profile after the witless farrago that was A Life Less Ordinary. Along with other mid-’90s pop-culture landmarks like Pulp Fiction and Scream, Trainspotting looks distinctly ropy now, all slick surfaces, bold primaries and lashings of shock-horror in-yer-faceness. Shallow Grave, meanwhile, was shallow and certainly not grave. Both Trainspotting and Shallow Grave disintegrate like damp Kleenex on a third viewing.

We meet DiCaprio‘s jaded solo traveler, Richard (no last name, and “from nowhere”), in Bangkok as he looks for ways to escape the well-trodden backpacker routes, now clogged with junkie tourists and “Western parasites” busy strip-mining the fleshpots of the Orient for their own pleasure. In a flyblown hostel he encounters a messianic tramp named Daffy Duck (Robert Carlyle), who gives him a map to Paradise — an undiscovered island with a perfect, concealed beach. Richard hooks up with a French couple, Etienne and Francoise (Guillaume Canet and Virginie Ledoyen). Together they trek to the island, which is uneasily divided between an idealistic multiracial European beach community overseen by den mother Tilda Swinton, and a huge inland marijuana farm manned by piratical, machine-gun-toting Thai growers. The two groups have reached a mutual non-aggression pact that depends on no more people finding out about the beach.

Except that Richard has already copied the map for a gang of no-brain stoners, and when he enters Paradise, his “Diablo” T-shirt announces (rather too loudly) that he’ll soon turn it into hell. His motives for being there are corrupt to begin with — he‘s got the hots for Francoise, and his only vocation is “the pursuit of pleasure” — and suspicion attaches to him because, alone among the beach’s transplanted Europeans, he is American. (Changing Richard from English to American is the movie‘s one stroke of genius — it clarifies in an instant the novel’s rather unfocused Coca-colonial subtext.) Sure enough, the stoners follow him, the compact with the pot farmers is violated, and Richard becomes an outcast, at which point he develops a Khe Sanh–style thousand-yard stare and starts to take instructions from the ghost of Daffy. It‘s only a matter of time before the Deerhunter-style Russian roulette games kick off.

The Beach certainly looks beautiful, but doesn’t bear too much close analysis: It‘s certainly no brainier than Trainspotting, and not an inch deeper. The segue into Richard’s rather-too-polite psychosis is glib and easy, as is the community‘s slide into collective solipsism and quasi-fascism. But at the center is DiCaprio’s energizing performance, which lends the movie a definition and focus it would otherwise lack. One awaits the day when he finds himself standing in the ruins of his physical beauty, Titanic a distant memory, finally able to get on with the serious business of being a damn good actor. The Beach will have to suffice until then.

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