Return to Paradise

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

August 13, 1998

Return to Paradise is a movie that deals with weighty issues in a clumsy and unbelievable manner. Director Joseph Ruben (The Stepfather) and writers Wesley Strick (Cape Fear) and Bruce Robinson (The Killing Fields) weave a tale of guilt and redemption that is painfully manipulative and often uninvolving.

Reworking the 1989 European film Force Majeure, the new movie follows the dubious exploits of a trio of party animals who come to Malaysia looking for sun, thrills and good hashish. "Sheriff" (Vince Vaughn) and Tony (David Conrad) eventually fly back to New York, but their pal Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix) won't soon be joining them.

The Malaysian cops have busted him for the enormous stash of drugs Sheriff and Tony have left behind. With this much contraband, the authorities mistake Lewis for a dealer and give him the usual sentence for such a crime-death.

Back in the States, Lewis' persistent attorney (Anne Heche) tries to convince Sheriff and Tony to turn themselves in. While the pair might have to spend three years in the Malaysian ghastly jails (or 6 years if only one of the two cooperates), their sacrifice could save Lewis from the gallows.

Despite the life or death stakes and the narrow deadline (Sheriff and Tony have only eight days to decide), the movie feels false. The flick ranges from being predictable to laughably implausible. For example, we know that Lewis will probably be a goner because his sole but noble ambition is to save orangutans from poachers. Ruben and his screenwriters have little faith in their setup because they load to plot with silly, outlandish twists. Instead of driving the movie, these little zingers (there is a bumper crop of last minute revelations) slow the movie to a crawl. Worse, Ruben appears to think his viewers aren't terribly bright. In one particularly excruciating moment, the Malaysian judge at Lewis' hearing abruptly switches from his native tongue into fluent English, presumably so that American audiences can appreciate his dramatic remark. This takes suspension of disbelief to a new level.

Return to Paradise is almost redeemed by Heche's powerful performance. She achieves a compelling balance of compassion and persistence and manages to keep her dignity even when she's saddled with a corny closing speech or a half-baked romantic subplot.

While Ruben's concern about Malaysia's draconian justice system is commendable, one wishes that he could express these issues with a little more sincerity and subtlety. Return to Paradise is the sort movie that appeals to one's better instincts and makes one resentful in the process (R). Rating: 4.




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