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Lazy 'Paddle' Can't Sink Fast Enough

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2004; Page C05

You can say of "Without a Paddle" that at least it cares enough to steal from the very best. Unfortunately, that's about all it cares about.

The movies it loots include John Boorman's great "Deliverance," Ron Underwood's less great but greatly entertaining "City Slickers" and Rob Reiner's not-so-bad "Stand by Me."


Dax Shepard, from left, Seth Green and Matthew Lillard are city boys ineptly making their way through the wilderness. (Simon Cardwell -- Paramount Pictures)

_____Correction_____
In an Aug. 20 review of "Without a Paddle," the film's setting was incorrectly described as Washington state. The movie takes place in Oregon.


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"Deliverance" provides most of the narrative arc, as the film chronicles the adventures of some inept city boys as they canoe through the wilderness and eventually -- after the inevitable comic adventures with growly bears and frothy rapids -- are chased by Hollywood-issue rednecks. These bad guys lack teeth, hygiene, grammar and the ability to choose the proper wine, but are abundantly endowed with automatic weapons, tattoos and southern accents (though the setting is Washington state). In other words, they've been hastily downloaded from Stereotypes-r-us.com, a firm shamed into retiring its other models and, one hopes, soon to retire this one.

When it's not actively offending or annoying, it does have a few laughs of the God-am-I-really-laughing-at-this? variety and a single moment of grace when Burt Reynolds himself makes an appearance, as flat-bellied and charismatic as ever. That lasts about three minutes. Then it's back to banality.

Tom (Dax Shepard), Jerry (Matthew Lillard) and Dan (Seth Green) are in their thirties, with routine lives, modest careers and rocky romantic situations. They feel they deserve so much more. Poor babies. Wahhhhhhhhhh. They're languishing in their quarter-life crises. Anyway, the funeral of a fourth member of their childhood posse reunites them -- this is the "Stand by Me" part -- rekindling a childhood dream, and so they set off on a river journey through the Washington wilderness.

The nominal goal of the quest is the missing fortune their boyhood hero, D.B. Cooper, vanished with when he bailed out of the plane he'd skyjacked back in 1971. Yet the film, directed by comedy hack Steve ("Little Nicky") Brill, never manages to make the Cooper quest credible, because it's busy looking for hillbillies or cracking poop jokes. And Cooper himself has always given me the creeps: Who says this guy's a folk hero? He was an armed felon who put dozens of people at risk like any bank robber with an AK-47.

But the Cooper quest is really a feint. The young actors appear to be on a quest for a different treasure: a career as an adult actor. Two of them at least have made modest names for themselves as teenagers in more accomplished comedies. Green, of course, played Dr. Evil's son, Scott Evil, in the three Austin Powers films, but shorn of Mike Myers's antic genius as Dr. Evil he comes across pretty forlorn and unremarkable. As for Lillard, he's been a smiley-faced fixture in the "Scooby Doo" films as well as the original "Scream." Like Green, he's not remotely able to impress the camera when he's the whole story. Then there's Dax Shepard: Of him, I can only ask: Who the hell is Dax Shepard and why should anyone care? One of his previous screen credits is "Vomiter at party."

The movie stirs briefly to life whenever it halts for a long or wide shot of the beautiful Washington forests and mountains, which are actually the forests and mountains of New Zealand. Too bad the plot and the actors get in the way. The New Zealand tourism department should sue. And, as I said, Reynolds still has enough charisma to hold the screen against nearly anybody, especially these three human Twinkies.

Without a Paddle (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for drug references, sexual material, a fair amount of comic violence, and gross-out humor of the lowest possible common denominator.


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