Movie Review By Casey McCabe
Unlike its characters, who forfeit their possessions to reach a secret island paradise, the new film "The Beach" arrives with plenty of baggage. For starters, this is the film Leonardo DiCaprio chose, after much deliberation, to follow his newly Titanic status. He offered his gilded participation to the filmmaking team of Danny Boyle, Andrew Macdonald and John Hodge, the glib sociopaths who gave us "Shallow Grave" and "Trainspotting" but who have rarely ventured outside Scotland or produced a film that would be under the scrutiny of dewy-eyed American teenage girls. Then there were those pesky reports that the production was terraforming its way through Thailand in order to tell a cautionary tale about the arrogance of Western interlopers.
Once the film starts, most of the baggage is jettisoned. DiCaprio, we are reminded, is an actor worth watching. The Scotsmen have not gone Hollywood. And no amount of dew in the eye should keep Leo lovers from loving Leo or missing the film's cautionary tale (though I might hedge that last bet). The only thing that really gets lost in "The Beach" is the chance to make a much better movie.
DiCaprio plays Richard, a young American backpacker in search of the so-called real world. Arriving in Bangkok he discovers a world of international backpackers all doing essentially the same thing: smoking cheap dope, buying cheap counterfeit goods on the street, and watching American videos in Thai cafes. Couldn't you do the same thing in Berkeley? Richard is having this epiphany when his flophouse neighbor, played with drug-casualty dementia by Robert Carlyle, bequeaths him a map to a legendary island paradise before slitting his own wrists. There is absolutely no chance Richard will not take this bait, for therein lies the movie. And no chance that this secret paradise won't be something out of our wildest dreams…then slip into our worst nightmare because, well….that’s just the secret paradise business.
In fairness to the film it handles its often fantastic premise with a generally level head, veering off the Lord of the Flies path and tossing in enough good humor to keep things afloat for awhile. The problem comes in adapting Alex Garland's book. After making several visual and narrative nods to "Apocalypse Now" the story has Richard do a full-blown Col. Kurtz. Exiled to the jungle, he undergoes the transformation from decent fellow to wild animal, finding a heart of darkness that can rationalize the killing of any human that threatens his territory. Except that Richard recognizes the moment things have gone too far and chooses to reclaim his sanity, his French girlfriend, and his voice in the now doomed community. Trouble is, this entire chain of events is afforded about five minutes of screen time. It's almost as though after miles of exquisite travelogue footage, Boyle looked down to see he was on his last roll of film. So the subsequent climax and epilogue, which might look very good on paper, are strangely uninvolving in this movie.
For those who go to movies for escape, "The Beach" ain't a bad one. But I do hope nothing of indigenous Thailand was harmed in the making of this film. Because it's not good enough to warrant a sacrifice.
© 2000 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 02/09/00
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