[Screen It]

(2000) (Leonardo DiCaprio, Virginie Ledoyen) (R)

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Drama: A young American traveler and his two new French friends travel to a hidden island, rumored to be a tropical paradise, only to slowly discover that it might not be such an idyllic place.
Richard (LEONARDO DiCAPRIO) is a young American traveler who's arrived in Thailand looking for adventure beyond the typical tourist trappings. While he's immediately drawn to an alluring French woman, Francoise (VIRGINIE LEDOYEN), who's staying next door with her boyfriend, Etienne (GUILLAUME CANET), Richard gets his opportunity upon meeting Daffy (ROBERT CARLYLE).

He's an older and quite delusional man who rambles on about a secret island, a paradise with a perfect beach that few have ever seen. Richard doesn't think much of this, attributing the story to the pot they smoked, but the next morning he discovers that Daffy left him a map to that island.

Quickly convincing Francoise and Etienne to join him, the three head off for the remote island, but not before Richard shares the story about it - as well as a copy of his map - with some stoner tourists who are intrigued by rumors of it being overgrown in pot.

Eventually making it to the island after a long swim in potentially shark-infested waters, the three discover to their horror that part of the island is run by armed drug farmers. Managing to avoid detection, Richard and his friends head off to the other half where they're met by Keaty (PATERSON JOSEPH), a fellow traveler who leads them back to a community of other travelers, loosely ruled by Sal (TILDA SWINTON) and her handyman boyfriend, Bugs (LARS ARENTZ HANSEN).

While everything seems quite wonderful and the three frolic on the beach and in the jungle with their new friends, unrestrained passion, eventual dissention and the possibility of those with Richard's copied map arriving on the island soon threaten to destroy their idyllic paradise.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
If movies could be compared to flesh and blood people, then "The Beach" - the latest film from the creative team responsible for "Trainspotting" and "A Life Less Ordinary" - would be one of the world's gorgeous inhabitants. You know the kind, they're the type of person whose beauty simply but completely transfixes one's gaze and attention to the point that you don't really care what they're like as a person, or in this case, movie.

The better you get to know them, however, the more the sheen begins to wear a bit thin as you discover that beauty truly does only lie skin deep and that with time it's effect begins to lessen. Worse yet, it doesn't take long before you realize that this attractive vessel is simply a poseur that's imitating another, and once that imitation is revealed, the person and/or movie doesn't look quite as good as they/it once did.

You'll probably have the same reaction to this film that's based on novelist Alex Garland's 1996 first-time work of the same name. Borrowing heavily from both "The Lord of the Flies" and Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (itself based on Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"), the story does have a fair amount of built-in intrigue due quite simply to the time-tested plots. It also efficiently recaptures the mood and feelings of those old adventure flicks of times past where Americans would descend upon foreign tropical lands only to discover that as much peril as beauty encompassed them.

Yet, the deeper into which this film travels in both plot and character behavior and motivation, the further it sinks into muck and general absurdities. What probably worked in Garland's novel - as far as getting inside the protagonist's head and understanding if not empathizing with him - doesn't translate that well to the big screen. As such, what may have been plausible and acceptable in written form becomes increasingly preposterous - not to mention derivative - on film.

Despite some character motivation and behavior that's a bit hard to fully buy into - such as Richard's easy acceptance of a map and related tale of the idyllic paradise from an obviously deranged man, and the French couple's quick decision to join him in traveling there - however, the film works rather well in its early moments.

The scenery - not to mention the cast - is absolutely gorgeous thanks to Oscar-nominated cinematographer Darius Khondji's ("Evita," "Seven") splendid camera work, and the basic plot of an adventurous young man on a quest for something edgy and possibly even dangerous certainly has its share of inherent intrigue.

Just like any other story set on a tropical island - be it "Blue Lagoon," "Six Days, Seven Nights," or even "Gilligan's Island" - we naturally know that trouble and/or danger is brewing just over the horizon, and this film doesn't take too long in adopting or straying too far from that familiar formula. The problem is, that's where the film starts to go terribly wrong.

First comes the predictable passion and amorous encounters. While director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge (both from "A Life Less Ordinary" and "Trainspotting") try to elicit both eroticism and danger from that part of the material, few decent sparks fly from either aspect. Despite one scene of conflict between a jilted lover and the responsible "jilter," that whole issue is quickly abandoned.

It gets worse when the filmmakers begin to delve too far into familiar territory - specifically that already mined by Coppola and his brilliant, Vietnam picture, "Apocalypse Now." Even going so far as to visually reference the film, this one quickly becomes a Gen X update/variation of that story. As such, it will certainly elicit so many memories and comparisons to that one that you'll begin wondering when Brando will show up muttering about razor blades and snails, or if others will exclaim loving the smell of pot in the morning or that "Leo don't surf."

While there's nothing unlawful about retelling a story - especially if it's coming up on being a quarter of a century old - the way in which this one unfolds, or better yet, unravels, is disappointing to say the least. The point in which it hits rock bottom, however, is during a delusional period where Richard fantasizes about being the main character in his own jungle video game. Although that may have worked in the original novel (if present at all), it's horribly misused here and completely finishes off letting out what little precious air was left in what was once a lofty cinematic balloon.

What the film does have going for it - at least until the story and most credibility drops out from underneath it - is Leonardo DiCaprio ("Titanic," "The Man in the Iron Mask"). Bypassing all of the hype and hoopla surrounding that big boat story, DiCaprio is a decent actor, having delivered some strong and memorable performances in the past.

At first glance, the protagonist here would seem to be a good match and challenge for DiCaprio to play. Unfortunately, and despite a few decent moments - such as his fun "tall tale" detailing his encounter with a shark - he can't overcome the absurdities and silliness that quickly overtakes his character and the film's second half.

Other than Robert Carlyle ("Angela's Ashes," "Trainspotting") who only occasionally and briefly shows up as a quite delusional but compelling character, the rest of the performers here might as well be palm trees or glistening sand. As such, while the likes of Virginie Ledoyen ("A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries," "Jeanne et le garçon formidable"), Tilda Swinton ("The War Zone," "Orlando") and Guillaume Canet ("Barracuda," "Sentimental Education") are easy on the eye, they inhabit sketchily drawn characters at best.

For instance, we never really know that what makes the commune's leader, Sal, tick, nor do we know much about the two French lovers that Richard eventually separates. As far as the rest of the cast, they're essentially just background set pieces with little or no personalities or real purpose other than taking up space and filling empty spots in various scenes.

Despite a splendidly glorious look and the potential for some decent drama and fireworks, the film ends up devolving into a mess of silliness and utter stupidity that unfortunately only reinforces the stereotype about the beautiful things or people in the world often not having much to offer beyond their outward appearance. As such, "The Beach" rates as just a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed February 3, 2000 / Posted February 11, 2000

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