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'The Beach': Trouble in Paradise

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2000


    'The Beach' Leonardo DiCaprio tries to find paradise in "The Beach." (20th Century Fox)
Think of "The Beach" as "Peter Pan" with machine guns, sex, and Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of Tinker Bell.

It's about a tribe of lost boys (and girls) in a Never Never Land that looks exactly like the bejeweled islet glimpsed by Wendy and her brothers as the great Peter P. vectored them in from London. No, it's not third star on the right, straight on till morning. It's off the coast of Thailand, but there are even some pirates in the form of AK-47-toting marijuana farmers who make life interesting by murdering kids once in a while.

But when the farmers aren't shooting them and the sharks aren't eating them, these children of pleasure live in Pan-like paradise: For them Never Land evidently means never having to say no to any impulse, no matter how ill-advised. Is this a child's idea of paradise or what?

The movie, by the hipsters Danny Boyle, Andrew Macdonald and John Hodge, who made the great "Trainspotting" and "Shallow Grave" and the ungreat "A Life Less Ordinary," is relentlessly beautiful and wholly annoying. And in fact, it's really not as smart as the wise J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan." That old pro knew something these boys don't: how to come up with a third act. Even their second is a mess.

Our hero is Richard, embodied by the banal beauty of DiCaprio, that big-headed, gangly boy with an adult's voice and a child's body and Huck Finn's tousle of hair. A wandering American in search of the real, a refugee from Starbucks and www.virtualife.com, he has come to rest in a sleazy Bangkok hotel. A crazy Scot (Robert Carlyle in a cameo for the production team that made him famous in "Trainspotting") tells him of paradise: a beach so unspoiled one could live there like a god, enjoying beauty and bong in double-lungfuls over all of one's wakeful days. Then, presumably in mourning for paradise lost, he slashes his veins and bleeds out on dirty linen, amid a cloud of Asiatic flies and his own stench.

Richard hardly notices in the excitement that Carlyle's Daffy has left him a map to the place. He invites along his next-door neighbors – two brilliantly beautiful French kids, Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen) and Etienne (Guillaume Canet) – and the trio begin the pilgrimage. After a few adventures in the jungle, water and midair, they arrive.

At about that point the movie tanks. Getting there was all the fun, particularly as Boyle, an expert in squalor (check out the toilet scene in "Trainspotting" if you doubt it), does a fabulous job of evoking Asia as a cesspool of drugs, sweat, fun, travel and adventure. The food is cheap, the beer cold, the sexual opportunity endless, the water warm, the happy grass available by the fistful. Book me on the next flight, thank you very much.

But the magic island proves weirdly unmagical. It's more structured than Club Med, run by a nasty totalitarian called Sal (played by Tilda Swinton of "Orlando" as a dour CEO), and it's as full of duties as the life left behind. Okay, so it's on the beach. Well, you've seen beaches as beautiful and they're much closer, and so have I.

Nowhere in the film is there much sympathy. The settlers on this new frontier are a fairly unimpressive bunch, and none more so than Richard, who quickly steals Francoise from her lover and could be described as either a showoff or a blowhard if the grass didn't make him so lethargic. The others are no better, and any sense of community is purely the invention of the slightly more adult Sal, who, like any cult leader in recent history, demands sexual gratification from the flock. Then, when one of their members is ripped up by a shark, they put him in the jungle to die more quietly. His screams are very annoying. Ultimately, they exile Richard because he's drawn a map of the place that will attract others; Richard goes quietly nuts in the jungle in the movie's most ludicrous waste of time.

All the way through, Boyle seems to have bigger fish in mind. There are echoes of Joseph Conrad, William Golding and Rudyard Kipling to the piece as well as Barrie, but as quickly as Boyle evokes them, he dumps them. Do they find the heart of darkness, like Conrad's intrepid voyager? No, they find no heart at all. Do they devolve to savagery like Golding's lost tribe: no, but to passivity. Do they try to hustle the East, like Kipling's imperialists? No, they hardly notice the East. They're too high.

The movie just more or less self-destructs. It follows no pure line of narrative and wobbles all over the place. When they're assaulted, they give up without a fight as most softies dedicated to the pleasure principle will do. They're like H.G. Wells's Eloi in "The Time Machine": a race of delicate beauties that are really the grazing, fattening cattle for the more aggressive. Where is Francis Ford Coppola when you need him – I was hoping for an airstrike. Apocalypse this place now!

The Beach (119 minutes) is rated R for intense violence, a shark attack and much sexual thrashing.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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