8/11/2013

Review: Diablo Cody's 'Paradise' Starring Julianne Hough and Russell Brand


The vast majority of the reviews you'll read for Paradise (formerly Lamb of God) will begin by emphasizing its polarizing debut director, Diablo Cody. It's for good reason, because although she made an immediate impact with her Oscar-winning Juno script, the cynical and pop culture-heavy voice she lends her characters definitely isn't for everybody. But whether one appreciates her or not, she's effectively used humor to tackle tough issues with brutal honesty: teen pregnancy; female empowerment and sexuality in Jennifer's Body; and chronic arrested development in Young Adult. So one would expect that given total control, Cody would do the same on the subject of faith and religion, but the greatest takeaway from Paradise is just how soft it is.

Paradise is a completely different sort of film for Cody, and the main protagonist completely unlike any character she's written before. Cody continues her streak of casting gorgeous female leads with the perky Julianne Hough as Lamb Mannerheim, a Christian girl living in a strict fundamentalist Montana town. When we meet her she's on the beach, dreaming of how she used to be. Once the most devout, popular, and beautiful girl in town, Lamb is now scarred physically and spiritually after surviving a plane a crash. Bitter, she angrily denounces God in front of her parents (Nick Offerman and Holly Hunter, given nothing to do) and the entire parish. “I might even vote Democrat!!!” she shouts to a clearly astonished crowd who could never conceive of such an affront. She decides to pack up and pursue all of the earthly pleasures long denied her, and the only place to do it is in the city of sin itself, Las Vegas.

"I've got a heart full of rage and an L.L. Bean tote bag full of cash". Yeah, those are the corny sorts of things Lamb says along her hopeful journey, and it's just one of a number of reasons she's probably the least developed of Cody's many female leads. Lamb talks in clich├ęs, which reflects her broadly-defined characterization. She's at once so ignorant of the world that she's never met a Muslim; has never heard the world "phenomenal"; and worries about catching diseases from dinner plates, while other times she's unnaturally perceptive.

After meeting a pair of unlikely Vegas guides in "charming" bartender William (Russell Brand) and bored nightclub singer Loray (Octavia Spencer), Lamb gets a taste of the Vegas nightlife, although we experience very little of it. We see her hit the zip line and make her way through the swanky Chalet dance club, but most of what she experiences and feels is communicated through Lamb's narration. Her awe that prostitutes’ pictures are handed out on the street "like baseball cards" is never truly felt; nor her shock as she learns living a life of excess may not be quite the paradise she thought it would be. And unfortunately that lack of connection continues through her budding relationship with William, a bad boy won over by Lamb's pure innocence. It never really feels authentic, and another large reason is the shaky performance by Brand, who has never found that balance between charming and smarmy Brit. It's a problem that plagued his two prior leading man attempts, the dreadful Arthur remake and Get Him to the Greek, and you'll note that Hollywood quickly got over their Russell Brand infatuation after both.  Better is Octavia Spencer, whose Loray has the sardonic wit and dry humor Cody specializes in writing. She worries about being the "magical negro" of Lamb's little story, like Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance. Lines like that show glimpses of the Cody we're used to, it's just unfortunate there aren't more of them.

Where Cody does some her best work is in the quieter moments where Lamb reflects on the new struggles she's had to deal with since the accident, and these scenes are helped by what is a truly charming and poignant turn by Hough. Dressed from neck-to-toe in ugly support garb that hides her burned flesh, Lamb is still a beauty but marred by fear and a lack of self-confidence. We sense her self-judgment when in a club full of scantily clad, hyper-sexual peers, and even more so when she's alone in the shower, "the most painful part of her day". Hough is less convincing the angrier Lamb gets, it's just not a natural fit for her, but it also has to do with the inconsistency of the character. The emotional beats are lacking in any depth or insight, and Cody seems to be trying hard to be inoffensive. The film is neither mocking of religion nor deferential to atheism, and while it doesn't need to be one or the other, Paradise would have benefited from Cody putting more of herself into it, not less.

Paradise is available On Demand now and opens theatrically October 18th.