If you could save the life of a close friend by serving three years in a Malaysian prison, what would you do? Would you let the friend die for fear of what might happen to you during those three years? Or would you surrender your freedom--and possibly your physical and mental health--in order to save a friend? This "what-if" scenario becomes the central concern of Return to Paradise.
Directed by Joseph Rueben, whose resume was strictly run-of-the-mill before this movie (including Sleeping With the Enemy and The Good Son), Return to Paradise is an astonishingly powerful movie that (for the most part) avoids typical Hollywood contrivances. It's a quiet movie that allows us to get to know the main characters, with all their warts intact. For example, Sheriff (Vince Vaughn) can be alternately charismatic and boorish. After having sex with a woman, he tells her he likes the "talking part" least, and he tells his friends he couldn't care less about endangered species. However, when his friends are in danger of getting mugged in an alley, Sheriff comes to the rescue. Likewise, this isn't a movie about some poor, innocent Americans who run afoul of the law. It's about three partying, whoring buddies who close out a month-long trip to Malaysia with a reckless spree ("We're gonna party until the cash runs out," says Sheriff) that would tragically alter their lives.
Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix) is the idealist of the group. He wants to stay in Malaysia to study endangered orangutans. Tony (David Conrad) is an engineer who dreams of adding more skyscrapers to the New York skyline. And Sheriff is a cynic who loves to have a good time but has little idea what to do with his life.
Two years after Tony and Sheriff return to New York, Sheriff is a limousine driver. One day he picks up a fare (Anne Heche) who tells him that she is Lewis' lawyer. She says Lewis has spent the last two years in prison--for possession of the hashish that he, Tony, and Sheriff had purchased during their partying spree. However, in Malaysia, he's considered a drug dealer unless he can prove that he shared the hashish. And dealers are routinely executed. Lewis' court appeals are now exhausted. Nothing stands between him and the gallows except for Tony and Sheriff. If they will return to Malaysia and surrender to authorities, Lewis' life will be spared. However, Tony and Sheriff will then have to serve three years in prison. This situation is relatively clear cut. But the implications for Tony and Sheriff are far from it.
Much of the burden for whether this movie succeeds or fails rest in the hands of Vince Vaughn. And he is certainly up to the challenge. His Sheriff feigns a cool, comic indifference, but once he hears about Lewis his stomach is in knots. Throughout his adult life Sheriff has avoided responsibilities. But now he must take responsibility for his past actions or his friend will die.
Vaughn is one of the most interesting actors working in Hollywood. In Swingers his movements were like velvet--a pretty-boy actor who knew all about being constantly on the make. But in Return to Paradise, cynicism and indifference fill his movements with pain and confusion. Don't be surprised if Vaughn gets an Academy Award nomination for his performance as Sheriff.
Joaquin Phoenix's performance as Lewis is filled with the same fragile intensity that he brought to his role as Nicole Kidman's teenage lover in To Die For (one of the great underrated movies of the past decade), and Anne Heche's performance as Attorney Beth Eastern is filled with compassion. In fact it's one of the most sensitive portrayals of a lawyer ever committed to film (which should point out to savvy filmgoers that the movie has a trick up its sleeve).
Return to Paradise is somewhat limited by the gimmicky nature of the "what-if" premise. Plotwise, the movie is forced down a path that provides few surprises. Either Tony and Sheriff go back to Malaysia or they don't. The filmmakers do provide a few plot twists, but even those twists are easy to see coming. Where the movie succeeds best is in the performances themselves and in the mournful, claustrophobic direction of Joseph Rueben. His New York is a world of hard, dark, cold surfaces that signify the emptiness within Sheriff. As Sheriff struggles to find his own soul and commit himself to his friend, the filmmakers pull us into his world with understated but expressionistic elegance. The camera holds close on Sheriff as he peels the label from a bottle of beer or uncomfortably sits on the edge of his bed and we feel his confusion and anguish. This is a remarkable movie.
[rating: 3 of 4 stars]