“Paradise” represents a double disappointment since it not only has a screenplay by Diablo Cody, the distinctive and witty writer of “Juno” and “Young Adult,” but represents her feature directing debut. Alas the movie is lame and, even more surprising, underwritten.
It’s more of a sketchy idea in search of a story. Few directors in history have gotten away with finding their movie while making them. Robert Altman comes to mind and more than a few times, he never found his movie either.
But in her first outing as a director, Cody the writer has failed her director completely, sending herself out with a very unfinished screenplay.
The idea, as best I can make out, is for a young girl, raised to pursue goodness and purity — as defined by her parents and community — to instead change course. She decides to pursue sin and decadence only to find them as banal and unsatisfying as goodness.
Cody no doubt means this to be ironic but the idea lacks clarity: The definitions of goodness and evil are extremely flawed so, of course, the movie comes up lame.
Goodness gets defined not by morality but religion — fundamentalist Christianity, home-schooling and the strictest of boundaries when its comes to sex, smoking, alcohol and drugs. Evil is defined as … well, Las Vegas.
Oh sure, the place likes to bill itself as Sin City. If you ever go there though, you’ll never see so many blank-looking people wandering around trying to convince themselves they’re having a good time.
Cody’s heroine is Lamb Mannerheim (Julianne Hough), 21, reared in an unshakeable faith in the Protestant God in her small Montana town. That faith unravels when a plane crash robs her of her fiancé and leaves her so badly burned and disfigured that it takes months of painful operations just to restore her to a semblance of normalcy.
Defying her parents (Nick Offerman, Holly Hunter) and rudely assailing their values in front of the church congregation, she boards the next plane —and her first ever — for Las Vegas to see what the devil has to offer. Not much it turns out.
She begins her quest at a dive on the Strip called the Hi Low Room. Well, it got at least one of those things right. None of the entertainers can sing worth a lick —and that includes Loray (Octavia Spencer) — and William the bartender (Russell Brand) is too chatty and nice to be any minion of the devil.
The rest of the movie involves Loray and William escorting this newcomer to the “real” Vegas, by which they mean downtown around Fremont Street where they hang out at a bar for casino employees. So Cody’s lost Lamb can sample booze (hates it), gambling (what’s the point?) and smoking (yuck).
She does get loaded but that’s on prescription pills she takes for her skin grafts and pain. Then she winds up in a ladies-room conversation with a tired hooker who fills Lamb in on that sort of professional life. Lamb concludes that sin isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
As I said, a lame and not very daring walk on the wild side. Mild side is more like it.
The movie’s incidents don’t add up to much. And while Loray and William make very fine hosts — they seem more protective of Lamb than her own parents — they never truly honor Lamb’s dark quest.
If you’re going to test this woman, in other words if you’re going to give sin a chance, then its emissaries must escort Lamb. Loray and William have their cynical side but each makes certain Lamb never strays into any real danger.
Nor does the move stray into anything the least bit comic or dramatic. There are none of the bright quips or archly amusing dialogue one expects from Diablo Cody. None of the smart characters is here either.
A sketch for them exists though. With a new draft for story and at least one more for her characters, Cody had the makings of a movie here. Lamb could have gotten truly lost and Brand’s character could have certainly been bent into more of a Mephostopheles (lord knows he looks the part).
Hough might have made a splendid lost Lamb in a different movie, combining the vulnerability and anger over her ruined body — suggested with barely glimpsed makeup and prosthetics — and curiosity about real “sin.” She acts like she just won a license to experiment before making up her mind about sin.
Spencer and Brand get stranded in their vague roles. Cody never quite determined whether they are Lamb’s guides or minders. They waffle too much
Whatever the case, Cody looks to have never gotten much beyond a first draft here. The incidents are all sketchy, the characters vague and the point lost.
Opens: October 18, 2013; DVD November 12, 2013 (RLJ Entertainment)
Production companies: Mandate Pictures, Red Band Films
Cast: Julianne Hough, Russell Brand, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, Holly Hunter
Director/screenwriter: Diablo Cody
Producer: Mason Novick
Executive producers: Nathan Kahane, Nicole Brown,
Director of photography: Tom Suhrstedt
Production designer: Laura Fox
Music: Rachel Portman
Costume designer: Mary Claire Hannan
Editor: Myron Kerstein
PG-13 rating, 86 minutes