Return to Paradise

on August 14, 1998 by Luisa F. Ribeiro
   An earnest effort to tell a moral story of responsibility and sacrifice, "Return to Paradise" falls flat, despite strong moments provided by its appealing young stars. Hobbled by an inevitable outcome in an increasingly unbelievable scenario, the film provides little surprise or depth, despite a couple of feeble eleventh-hour twists.
   Loosely based on a French film ("Force Majeure") and distantly similar to the harrowing "Midnight Express," "Paradise" tells the story of three young men who bond while partying across Asia: slacker John "Sheriff" Volgecherev (Vince Vaughn), mellow "tree-lover" Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix) and conventional Tony (David Conrad). After a month of easy dope, easy women and tropical repose in Malaysia, Sheriff and Tony depart, while Lewis stays behind to hitch on with an activist group that hopes to save endangered monkeys. Two years later, Sheriff, a hustling limousine driver, is approached by attorney Beth Eastern (Anne Heche) who reveals that Lewis, discovered with the group's remaining hashish, has spent the past two years in prison as a suspected drug dealer and is awaiting death in eight days. Beth informs Sheriff and later Tony that if either or both return to Malaysia to accept their responsibility and serve time, Lewis will be spared.
   Although the moral dilemma is played for suspense and tension, mostly provided by Sheriff's flip attitude and a pesky reporter (Jada Pinkett) who's gotten wind of the story and threatens to publicize it, the essence is never what the decision will be, rather when and how it will come about. The script is not equal to the subtleties of the task. The countdown to Lewis' hanging stretches absurdly with little practical activity other than excessive hand-wringing from Beth, brow-furrowing from Sheriff and an unconvincing romantic development. Tony and his fiancee's involvement in the decision barely register.
   Despite being confined to pacing hotel rooms, frantic cellular phone calls and sitting in too many restaurants, Heche delivers a strong sense of earnestness as the increasingly distraught Beth. Vaughn labors mightily under the obviousness of the script, while managing to reveal a fragile but profound fear of being an aging frat boy who longs to realize a finer, better self, only to be petrified that quality isn't within him. Phoenix, not unexpectedly, gets the showiest role as Lewis, slowly cracking under the horror of prison life and having to depend on what in essence are the decisions of total strangers.
   Despite the leads' strong efforts and attractive cinematography (by Reynaldo Villalobos), the contrived quality of the story never rises above mediocre dramatics. Starring Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche and Joaquin Phoenix. Directed by Joseph Ruben. Written by Wesley Strick and Bruce Robinson. Produced by Alain Bernheim and Steve Golin. A Polygram release. Drama. Rated R for language, drug content, some sexuality and a scene of violence. Running time: 112 min
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