Thursday, October 2, 2008


"The Beach" (**** out of ****), an exotic, symbol-laden saga about the elusive quest for paradise, qualifies as Leonardo DiCaprio's first serious movie since the controversial "Basketball Diaries." The talented "Trainspotting" trio of director Danny Boyle, scenarist John Hodge, and producer Andrew MacDonald have surpassed themselves again with another marvelously staged, provocatively plotted, and opulently produced film. Based on English author Alex Garland's bestseller, this lofty romantic thriller pays homage to "Apocalypse Now," "Jaws," "Lord of the Flies," "The Mosquito Coast," and "The Swiss Family Robinson" in its abrasive yarn about three, adventure seeking, twentysomethings that gate crash a secret society on a forbidden island in Thailand where a fabled beach unblemished by civilization shimmers in the sunlight.

"The Beach" begins sluggishly with our protagonist, Richard (Leonard DiCaprio) restlessly prowling Bangkok, a glitzy decadent tourist trap, before he checks into a shabby but suitable bug-infested hotel. Richard yearns for something dangerous, something to test the bounds of reality as he knows it and attain a state of nirvana. Essentially, "The Beach" concerns a young man's rites of passage, an end of innocence and illusions, and a descent into the chaos of maturity. At his seedy hotel, where everybody uses a communal bathroom, Richard emerges from the shower, naked except for a towel athwart his waist, and discovers to his embarrassment that he cannot unlock his door. An alluring French babe, Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen of "A Single Girl"), spots him and help him with his door. She blinds him with a smile as her boyfriend Etienne (French heartthrob Guillaume Canet), joins her. Later, a lonely Richard lies awake in bed at night while his French neighbors bang away in the room next door.

Enter Robert Carlyle as Daffy. He energizes "The Beach" as Richard's demented, suicidal lodger from the other side who has fled the island paradise. Daffy provides the necessary exposition, or background information, that sets up the story. While they smoke a joint, Daffy rhapsodizes about the island. Later, before he slashes his wrists and dies, Daffy leaves Richard a map to this mythical place. Richard persuades Francoise, with Etienne, of course, to accompany him on his trip to this topical Shangri-La. Eventually, they arrive on the coast, brave the shark-infested waters around the island, and find themselves standing at the edge of a sprawling field of marihuana.

Their bliss is ephemeral. Richard spots an adorable tree monkey and then realizes the cute little simian serves as a guard dog. Suddenly, a grim-looking bunch of ganja growers armed with AK-47 assault rifles are scouring the fields for intruders. Director Danny Boyle keeps you guessing throughout "The Beach," and this quirky scene exemplifies his bizarre sense of irony. Boyle alternates the good with the bad, so you never see what is coming until it occurs. As the farmers comb the fields, our heroes grovel in horror. Just as they have reached the end of the rainbow, a small monkey stands between them and their pot of gold! The image of a monkey as their nemesis enhances the humor of this scene, too.

After our heroes evade the farmers, they stumble onto a hidden sanctuary of an ideology-free commune, "a beach resort for people who don't like beach resorts," where everybody lives in apparent harmony. This lost tribe of twentysomethings has erected a bamboo society not entirely unlike the one that the castaways created in "Gilligan's Island." Some couples are straight, while other are gay. Boyle glosses over most of the commune members. He fleshes out some characters, like the cook who is obsessed with cleanliness, but he restricts them to the background unless they exert a major role in a scene. Anyway, they grow their own crops; marihuana included, and survive on fish caught from the lagoon. The shortage of feminine hygiene products and batteries for the Game Boys are virtually the only reason that these mod squatters dispatch trading emissaries to the mainland. Basically, they grow enough dope not only to keep themselves blitzed but also to sell to pay for their needs.

An uneasy truce exists between these lotus eaters and the pot farmers. The farmers let the hippies live on the other side of the island as long as nobody joins them. They fear that hordes of tourists would bring the law down on them. In one scene, they appeal to the sympathy of the commune with the story that their marihuana crop enables them to provide financially for their own families. Clearly, Richard and company have shattered the calm. While she doesn't warm to them immediately, Sal (Oscar winner Tilda Swinton), the leader of this make-shift society, welcomes them. The late, lamented Daffy—she explains—helped found their colony, but he suffered from depression and went AWOL. While our heroes assure Sal that they have the only existing map, Richard refuses to mention the copy that he entrusted to another group of stoners. Later, Richard's secret comes back to haunt him.

The first part of "The Beach" bristles with adventure, but the second half is more downbeat and depressing. Paradise may not be all it is cracked up to be. Richard's stoner friends becomes his worst nightmare as they paddle to the island and run afoul of the pot farmers. A shark attack plunges the commune into despair until they banish the survivor, who refuses to check into a hospital on the mainland. Everybody else tires of his whining and wants only to catch up on their suntans, casual sex, and volleyball without hearing him cry in agony.

Altogether, "The Beach" is not mindless juvenile pabulum, but an ambitious, serious-minded epic that exposes the dark side of paradise. Those who enjoyed "Shallow Grave: and "Trainspotting" will find that "The Beach" addressed the same themes that Boyle and his collaborators have dealt with before in different settings. Nothing predictable stagnates the storyline, and the main characters are more than horny, one-dimensional pawns.

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