Beach, The

     A lot of people will be attracted to The Beach because it is the new Leonardo DiCaprio movie. Leo has had a cult of fans ever since he appeared in The Basketball Diaries in 1995, and the size of that cult increased exponentially as soon as Titanic hit the screens. But Iím not really a huge fan of Leo--in fact, Iíd like to take this opportunity to mention that his film debut was in Critters 3 at the tender age of 17--so the thing that attracted me to The Beach was not the scrawny blond darling of the acting scene, but the guy who was the darling of the indie scene about four years ago, Danny Boyle. Boyle came into prominence when he directed a really great little movie about drugs and Scotland called Trainspotting. Now heís back, with the same screenwriter (John Hodge) but a totally different subject.

     But regardless of what it is that might make you want to see The Beach, Iím warning you now to crush that desire. Whether youíre a fan of Leo or Danny, or just a curious moviegoer hoping for a couple of hours of entertainment, you will be disappointed. The Beach is an awkward mess of a movie. It tries to be clever and profound, but only succeeds in being goofy and trite. Itís a half-assed allegorical parable which attempts to teach us that any earthly, human paradise will inevitably collapse (among other things). But the paradise, before it collapses, is not even particularly attractive (unless living in a big communal hut with no plumbing and eating only rice and fish sounds attractive to you).

     This supposedly paradisiacal beach lies only a few miles off the coast of present day Thailand, presumably rather near some active shipping lanes, but for some reason you can only find your way to it if you have a map. Bored American tourist Richard (teen girl magnet Leo; by the way, thatís the first big clue that this is an allegory--all the characters have only nicknames or first names, never last names) receives such a map from a crazed Scottish man named Daffy (Robert Carlyle, whose other, better films include Trainspotting and The Full Monty) who happens to be rooming next door to him in a cheap Thai hotel. Despite the fact that, just as in Trainspotting, one can only understand every third word that Carlyle spouts in his thick Scottish brogue, and also despite the fact that Carlyleís character offs himself almost as soon as he is introduced, he is probably the best thing about the movie. Nobody can say "fuck" quite like Robert Carlyle, and nobody can be a more amusing or engaging crazy guy (except maybe Christopher Walken).

     Anyway, Richard, having already shown in a previous scene (in which a shady guy on the street convinces him to drink snake blood while some other ominous guys, one with a threatening eye patch, look on), that he is reckless, foolhardy and ready to do any damn stupid ridiculous thing that comes his way as long as itís a new adventure, decides that not only should he try to find the beach thatís on the map (this is the map, remember, that he got from a crazy guy who killed himself), but that he should bring two perfect strangers along with him, mainly because one of them is a pretty French girl that heís taken a shine to, and because the other one is her boyfriend so he canít take her without taking him.

     The French girl is FranÁoise (Virginie Ledoyen) and her boyfriend is …tienne (Guillaume Canet), and theyíre rather bland, nice people. They agree to follow Richard on his mad quest, and all three eventually end up on the island with the really nice beach. The island contains a kind of idyllic hippie commune, which the three quickly join. Unfortunately, the island also contains a group of Thai drug farmers who are violently protective of their harvest. Richard gets in trouble with his commune and with the drug farmers when it comes out that he made a copy of the secret map and gave it to some nice people that he met once when he got locked out of his hotel room (Richard believes very strongly in trusting strangers). The leader of the commune throws him out into the jungle to fend for himself and orders him to get the map from those nice people when they arrive.

     At this point in the film, Richard rather inexplicably goes crazy. He imagines (in weird, ridiculous dream sequences) that his life has become a video game, and that Daffy has come back to life and is helping him to kill people. Within a week or two he learns to stalk soundlessly through the jungle and build traps that will catch drug farmers. We also get to see Richard eat a live caterpillar. "Did Leo really eat that caterpillar?" you may ask yourself. I donít know, but it sure looks like it, and wow is it funny.

     Later on in the film, Richard rather inexplicably becomes sane again. Relatively, that is. Heís always been a bit nutty. In fact, Richard is kind of an annoying, pathetic little guy. He lies to his friends and to his girl, whines and complains frequently, and after he successfully kills a baby shark, he gives an unnecessarily long and irritatingly arrogant speech about just how great he is. Also, he talks over almost the entire film, telling us all kinds of things that we already know or should be able to figure out without his help. Narration is almost never necessary, except in the best film noir, or in any other movie with a screenplay thatís crisp, clever and interesting. This screenplay is, frankly, not any of those things. Admittedly, there are some pretty good scenes in this movie--itís mainly the comic ones that come off well--but the great majority of The Beach misfires, not because the ideas are bad, or because the people working on the film have no talent, but because it was all executed so clumsily. The paradise is not believable. The main character is not real or likable. The attempt at allegory is pretentious and awkward. And, most regrettably, Thailand is portrayed as the stereotypical, Orientalist land of mystery, full of astounding beauty side by side with incredible danger. All of the Thais are strange and sinister; they even force the people in the commune to play a game of Russian roulette in a very unfortunate homage to The Deer Hunter. This characterization of the East allows us to identify with Westerners only, and even that is difficult to do because the majority of these Westerners are either strange, boring, or dumb.

     And so, in conclusion...Trainspotting is a good movie. Rent that instead.

Jim Genzano




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