** 1/2 Stars
Leonardo DiCaprio, Guillaume Canet, Virginie Ledoyen, Tilda Swinton
Directed by Danny Boyle
Writing credits: Alex Garland (novel), John Hodge
20th Century Fox * 118 minutes
There's no talking about THE BEACH without first addressing the scrawny blonde-haired 800-pound gorilla who presides over the proceedings. It's easy to forget that before the Boat Movie which catapulted his career into the stratosphere and turned him into just "Leo-exclamation point!", Leonardo DiCaprio was regarded as a Brilliant Young Actor by exactly the same people who have been salivating for the last year to pan this film even before seeing it. DiCaprio is living proof that paradoxically, too much success can actually be bad for your career. So the question is: Is DiCaprio worth $20 million for this film? Based on the audience of seven middle aged-to-elderly people at the screening I attended, the answer is no. Is the film really that bad? The answer: Also no.
The story in a rather long nutshell: DiCaprio is Richard, a young man of indeterminate background and life experience who finds himself in Bangkok, Thailand, in search of adventure. In a fleabag hotel right out of the Lonely Planet series on The Travel Channel, he encounters Daffy, an apparently mad Scotsman (Robert Carlyle, reviving his CRACKER Albie Kinsella character by way of The Simpsons' Groundskeeper Willie). Daffy offers him a doobie (yes, DiCaprio partakes liberally of the Killer Weed in this picture) and tells him of a spectacular beach, completely enclosed, which is nearly impossible to reach.
For reasons known to himself alone, Daffy draws Richard a map depicting the location of said beach, leaving it on the latter's door before checking out of this level of reality in a spectacular scene of self-mutilation. Undeterred by Daffy's madness, and still understimulated even after having drunk snake blood in front of a group of particularly nasty-looking Thai men (in lieu of Frances Fisher and Billy Zane), Richard decides to find this beach, and inexplicably enlists the companionship of Étienne and Françoise, the good-looking French couple next door whose amorous adventures have been keeping him awake at night.
Now France is hardly the planet Jupiter, and Étienne ought to have known that when Leonardo DiCaprio comes knocking on your door offering adventure, you don't just go off with him, assuming that your girlfriend (Virginie Ledoyen) will remain true to you. But Étienne (Guillaume Canet, in a competent English-language debut), has obviously been on an interplanetary journey for the last three years, and not only agrees, but seemingly also agrees to foot the bill, and ultimately is a far better sport about his girlfriend leaving him for DiCaprio than any guy brandishing a machete has any right to be.
After a few adventures, the intrepid trio reach their destination, to find a community of chronic vacationers who look like Hollywood's version of Deadheads. They all look Swedish, and every last one of them has perfect high cheekbones. The women are all blonde with impossibly perky breasts and the men are equally blond with perfect sixpack abs; and all are clad in hippie-chic Pier One Indian cottons. This ragtag band is presided over by a strange English woman in a bindi (a creepy Tilda Swinton), whose name is Sal, one helluva gal, and whose hold over the group is supposed to be cultlike, but the reason for her influence is never clearly established. What struck me about this tropical paradise community, in which the pursuit of pleasure seems paramount, is why it seems Richard is the only one getting laid (perhaps that explains the lack of babies in a community with only forty condoms), and why all of these perfect physical specimens still feel the need to wear bathing suits to go spear fishing in their tropical paradise.
Here the film veers into LORD OF THE FLIES territory, as paradise goes awry (which it always seems to when Leonardo DiCaprio comes on board), throwing in elements of APOCALYPSE NOW (a clip of which occurs early in the film, indicating that director Danny Boyle knew what he was doing) and arguably, THE DEER HUNTER. After much nastiness that purports to show "the truth about human nature," the film reaches a false-seeming, arguably "happy" ending that seems incongruous with the dark nature of the film. The camerawork is spectacular, and the scenery alone is worth the price of admission. Boyle's famous "circular shots" are in evidence here, and there are some wonderfully hallucinogenic sequences involving photographing the night sky from the point of view of the camera and a truly strange video game sequence in which Richard, banished from the village and verging on madness, becomes a character in his own game.
For all that it's supposedly about human nature, THE BEACH is not a particularly character-driven film. The only character about whom we know anything at all is Richard, and even he is somewhat cardboard; as we have no idea of either his background or motivations. I have a sense that the Richard of Alex Garland's novel (which admittedly I have not read) is a nastier, darker character than we see here, and he was softened in an obviously abandoned attempt to attract DiCaprio's core constituency. Yet he does portray Richard as an egotistical, self-involved, shallow jerk, which, when you are the fantasy object of millions of young women, qualifies as "edgy." DiCaprio reminds us here just what a natural actor he is, showing Richard as a cocky poseur and making his descent into madness actually credible (even if his sudden "recovery" is less so).
I believe that much of the venom directed at DiCaprio in this film is in the assumption that he is as big of a jerk as this character, which may or may not be true. I believe that at worst, he's merely indulging in some self-parody here, riffing on his own image. He looks eighteen now instead of fourteen, but at twenty-five, despite his obvious attempts to buff up for this picture, still looks like a skinny kid. Listening to his still-adolescent-sounding voice talking about desire is strangely incongruous and almost laughable. Yet his feline features serve him well, particularly in his verging-on-madness sequences (although in an unintentionally funny scene of him tying a purloined bandana around his head as a headband, he is more reminiscent of Gizmo in GREMLINS II than Sylvester Stallone in RAMBO) in which he slithers catlike through the forest.
Virginie Ledoyen is required only to be pretty as Françoise, and she certainly is that, in an exotic, Barbara Carrera kind of way. Despite her come-hither expression, she preens rather than beckons, and she has zero chemistry with DiCaprio. Unless you're the kind of guy that goes immediately nuts for any babe who looks good in a bikini, particularly one with a French accent (in which case you have probably just watched too many old Brigitte Bardot movies), she comes across as merely decorative without being particularly sexy. Guillaume Canet is serviceable enough as Étienne, whose character evolves in a potentially interesting direction that goes nowhere as the group's conscience. Tilda Swinton is appropriately bizarre, if somewhat mystifying, as Sal, but she does have the film's best line: "Now get some sleep. I may want to have sex again before we eat breakfast."
Friendship and betrayal are themes that run continuously through the Boyle/Hodge oeuvre, and the bottom line with THE BEACH is this: If you like Danny Boyle and John Hodge, you'll like THE BEACH. The film is clearly the product of the same minds that brought you SHALLOW GRAVE and TRAINSPOTTING, right down to the introduction of the main character by narration in front of fast-action camerawork of the film's locale. However, DiCaprio's thin, reedy Valley Boy voice, however portentious he may try to sound, is less effective in this bit than Christopher Eccleston's Geordie cadences warning "...but if you can't trust your friends, what then?" at the beginning of SHALLOW GRAVE or Ewan McGregor's smashing "Choose life, choose a job, choose a career, choose a family..." rant that opens TRAINSPOTTING. The Danny Boyle stylistic tricks, the attention to detail and setting, and the slightly off-kilter point of view of even something so straightforward as spectacular scenery, are on full view here, brought to life by Darius Khondji's gorgeous cinematography.
Some may attack the film as racist. Certainly the gun-toting Thais guarding their marijuana plants are as nasty as the Mexicans in TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE as they gun down unwary trespassers, and Bangkok is shown as a nightmare of neon, hucksters, and market stalls. Yet as someone who's seen any number of expatriate Americans and Germans, their hair coaxed into incongruous blonde dreadlocks, wearing similar Pier One Indian wear as they smoke spliffs and hawk their food and crafts on the beach in Negril, Jamaica, I can tell you that people who go in search of a Life Pursuing Pleasure in Paradise really do have this strange affinity tinged with condescension for the culture into which they plant themselves.
When all's said and done, THE BEACH is a visually arresting film with a good performance by DiCaprio, an excellent one by some truly awesome scenery, and an Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack that's effective without being intrusive. It's a film that proves to be better in retrospect than it is while watching. It's not for Mr. DiCaprio's demographic, however, for while the sex is virtually nonexistent, there is some extremely graphic violence and heavy drug use. But perhaps now Jack Dawson can finally, at long last, rest in peace and his fans can move on to other heroes. Yet for those die hards who insist that old Jack somehow bobbed back to the surface and was revived, a shot at the end of the film will prove oddly reassuring.
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