Brokedown Palace

Watching “Brokedown Palace” is like watching several different movies at once, and none of them are very good.

Full of themes and characters that are introduced and then go nowhere, the movie is melancholy, almost dreary, as it tries to make us ponder the question: What would you do for a friend?

Recent high-school grads and life-long chums Darlene (Kate Beckinsale) and Alice (Claire Danes) want to take a trip to celebrate their freedom before going to college. The plan is to go to Hawaii, but rebellious Alice thinks that’s too ordinary and convinces strait-laced Darlene to go with her to Thailand instead, even while telling her parents she’s going to Hawaii.

In Thailand, the two giggly teens embarrass themselves and indeed all of America as they gag on local food and complain about not being able to speak Thai. They are the model of typical “ugly Americans,” though they are certainly very attractive ugly Americans.

Up to this point, the movie is a female buddy picture, albeit not a very fun one. Then they meet up with Nick Parks (Daniel Lapaine), a handsome Australian con man who beds demure Darlene in a matter of seconds and invites both gals to Hong Kong. At the airport, though, authorities find about a ton of narcotics in Darlene’s backpack, put there by the Aussie, who was so handsome no one would have ever suspected him of being evil, but who might actually be in cahoots with the corrupt Thai government (Plot Element #792 that is briefly toyed with then abandoned). The girls, now framed up but good, get tossed into a Thai prison.

So now it’s a prison movie, complete with snarling guards and The Mean Girl whose only aim is to bully the other prisoners. Enter the lawyer, Hank (Bill Pullman), an American expatriate who sort of likes to help people, but who sort of just likes the money that comes from rescuing Americans from the Thai justice system. It’s hard to tell what his motivations are, really, though he is not the only character to suffer from this phenomenon.

The noble and heroic Hank hits dead ends and gives up, and so the movie is back to being about prison again. Eventually, one of the girls makes a sacrifice in order to get the other one freed, thus proving her true friendship and redeeming her of her checkered past.

Problem is, our knowledge of the two main characters is based almost entirely on what we’re TOLD about them, and not on what we see. We don’t care that she feels redeemed for saving her friend, because we never saw that she was in much need of redemption in the first place.

The movie tries several avenues, but usually fails at them. It tries to make us wonder if maybe one of the girls IS guilty, but that doesn’t work. Lou Diamond Phillips gets high billing as a DEA officer, but that goes nowhere. Seemingly dozens of characters are revealed to be corrupt, but none of those paths are ever pursued. It’s like we’re watching the brainstorming session for a movie, and not the actual movie.

Beckinsale and Danes, for what it’s worth, do their best at portraying characters that are woefully underwritten. And in the end, it’s that lack of character development that kills the movie. For while the film wants us to rejoice at one character’s literal freedom from prison and another’s metaphoric freedom from past sins, we can do little but shrug our shoulders at the fate of two girls who, for all intents and purposes, were actually pretty equally two-dimensional anyway.

C- (; PG-13, brief strong language, drug related material and some violent content.)