“The Beach” has me stumped. I have this vague feeling that I liked it, but then I can think of a thousand reasons why I shouldn’t have.
The film begins with Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a jaded American tourist in Bangkok. His voice-over narration (which sounds a lot like Edward Norton’s in “Fight Club”) indicates his detached, cynical attitude. Since we never learn his last name, where he’s from, or anything else about him (later in the movie, he calls someone back home, but we don’t even learn who, specifically, he was talking to), we can surmise that’s supposed to be Everyman — or, more exactly, Everyyouth, the embodiment of the American young people’s disenchantment with life in general.
So here’s the problem: Leonardo is far too daisy-fresh and young-looking to pull off a world-weary, cynical character. His narration rings astoundingly hollow, particularly when he gets psuedo-philosophical. (“Desire is desire wherever you go,” he says with great import. “The sun will not bleach it, nor the tide wash it away.”)
Richard winds up in a horrible Bangkok hotel (I suspect the word “horrible” may be redundant), where he meets a crazy, pot-smoking fellow named Daffy (Richard Carlyle, chewing the scenery here the way he chewed his fellow man in “Ravenous”). Daffy tells Richard about a mythical island that no one knows about — a paradise that is off-limits to the world. Richard doesn’t believe him until he finds a map on his door the next day, which Daffy apparently drew before killing himself.
Seeking to do something beyond what tourists normally do, Richard sets out to find the island. He takes with him two other hotel guests, a French couple named Etienne (Guillaume Canet) and Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen). He really just wants Francoise, but she and Etienne are sort of a package deal.
They get to the island within 20 minutes of the film beginning, and they find a true paradise, an entire community of former tourists who have dropped all the cares of the world to come and live here. There is order, in the form of a leader named Sal (Tilda Swinton), though she is certainly not an iron-fisted dictator. There is some basic work to be done to keep the paradise running, but overall, it’s pure heaven.
The film does well with its themes of responsibility and reality — two things that everyone on the island is trying to escape, but which ultimately must be dealt with. When a community member is attacked by a shark, rather than putting up with his tortured moans in the main hut, they take him out into the woods — out of sight, out of mind. These are people — Richard most of all — who don’t want to deal with anything unpleasant. Richard makes at least two huge mistakes over the course of the film, and his response is usually, “What can I say?” He realizes that “I’m sorry” won’t make it better, but he usually doesn’t even try it.
We also have issues of the unknown. Everyone gets tired of the same old thing, but they’re also afraid to try anything new. This film, perhaps pessimistically, suggests that trying something new may be futile anyway.
So what’s wrong with the movie? Mostly the scatter-brained nature of the plot. A love triangle develops with Etienne, Richard and Francoise … and then quickly dissolves when Francoise chooses Richard and Etienne just accepts it. Richard screws things up with Francoise, but she’s quickly forgotten anyway when Richard sets out to become Mr. Jungle Commando, lurking in the woods waiting for intruders to arrive, in a bizarre (though, I grudgingly admit, fascinating) sequence.
Also, let’s not forget the Daffy character, who sets the whole thing in motion with his map, then kills himself, all for no discernible reason. For a movie that handles its main themes really well, having things begin so weirdly is a liability.
What’s right about the film? DiCaprio is a good actor. He’s honest and real in this role, particularly when it allows him to have fun; as I said, the whole “cynical” thing doesn’t work for him. Production values are high, the Thai scenery is gorgeous, and the music is evocative. The movie is getting a
B (; )