The name Diablo Cody has a polarizing effect these days. Some folks love her. Others hate her. I don’t hate her, per se: I think she’s vastly overrated, more than a bit self-absorbed, and has grown into her own unique style of pretentiousness (though her characters act as if they resent it) … but I don’t hate her. I think she’s still writing and cashing checks on her modestly inspired JUNO – I won’t debate that film’s merits and/or demerits here – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with it in a town called Hollywood, where you’re only as good as your last Award nomination … which I don’t see coming down the pike for PARADISE.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Lamb Mannerheim (played with mostly zero conviction by a sadly under-talented Julianne Hough) has been to Hell and back in the form of a near-fatal plane crash that’s left her with scars and skin grafts over (fortunately) the mostly hidden parts of her body. This comeuppance has forced her to secretly re-examine her life and beliefs, and she turns her back on God, family, and friends in her small Montana hometown. Instead, she’s decided to take her financial settlement and see the big world outside … which just so happens to take the shape of Las Vegas (???). Once there, she embarks on a whirlwind evening to experience the best and worst that temptation has to offer.
Sorry, folks, but there’s just so, so, so, so, so much wrong with PARADISE I’m not even sure where to begin. Still, it’s my job, so I’ll give it a shot.
For starters, audiences have seen this character before: the tragedy-stricken girl who rises from the ashes (quite literally here) to take a shot at another life. What’s doubly disconcerting is that we’ve already seen it in every other film or TV project Diablo Cody is in some way, shape, or form responsible for. Isn’t she tired of it? Hasn’t she explored every possible variation on this theme? I get that not every writer and/or director wants to ‘push’ the envelope, but how far can one ‘push’ the same, shrill cynicism?
Even worse, Hough isn’t even close to approaching the skills needed to make anyone believe Lamb Mannerheim’s plight. She’s gorgeous – in a bright lights, big city kind of way – and the make-up job here doesn’t even come close to convincing anyone (much less her) that her body has been transformed in such monstrous proportions. (Having been around a few burn victims myself, I know what I’m speaking of.) Granted, Cody gives the blonde bombshell some drubbing-down, but you can’t really turn CoverGirl freshness into ‘Swamp Thing’ with just a few red blotches.
While I’m on the subject of Hough, did Cody seriously know what she wanted with this character? At one point in the script, we’re told that this small town girl has never watched television or surfed the internet or even had a cell phone. Cody even gets in a swipe at the religious Right by making Lamb the product of home-schooling, which would mean that she’s essentially been a shut-in up until this point, no? So how is it then that she even knows anything about the greater world outside? And why is there video in existence that shows her singing at some school-style event? Did the other children in her church – which we’re shown in the opening – never speak to her about things like boys and make-up and crushes and lip gloss? Apparently not, if we’re to believe this stinker of a script.
Certainly, casting Russell Brand as the picture’s “love interest” wasn’t a stroke of genius. After all, this guy didn’t have the stuffing to keep Katy Perry happy. Aren’t 10-year-old girls the only one on the planet left who find that turd funny? How are their parents going to feel about them heading into your PG-13 film, Cody? Did you think about that?
Complaints aside, I liked the film’s sentiments. I think there was a germ of an idea in here – about a young woman who finds herself and finds a calling in life in spite of whatever limitations her beliefs or an unfortunate accident may’ve placed upon her – but it’s lost in such a woefully crippling MTV ‘After School Special’ quality that it’s hard to stomach the blandness to get to the truth. Perhaps in the hands of a more gifted director, some of this might’ve been weeded out; but a bad script will usually remain a bad script unless someone’s willing to speak with the screenwriter about ‘flaws,’ and that’s something apparently no one wants to have a chat with Diablo about.
PARADISE (2013) is produced by Mandate Pictures. DVD distribution is being handled by RLJ Entertainment. As for the technical specifications, this modestly budgeted comedy has all the makings of a big budget production (which it clearly wasn’t), so it looks and sounds accordingly. And if it’s special features you want – all you Diablo Cody fans, both of you! – then you’re in for a treat as she dishes a commentary track just for you. Also, there are a handful of interviews with the main players, along with the theatrical trailer. It’s a nice collection, indeed.
MILDLY RECOMMENDED. It’s a curious failure. I guess the best that could be said of PARADISE is that if you like Diablo Cody’s other works and aren’t really looking for anything all that new, savvy, relevant, or (sadly) intelligent, then you’re likely to swallow the drivel here. The fact that the end result is noticeably smaller than the individual pieces here is probably the chief disappointment; Lamb’s cynical worldliness makes absolutely no sense given the corner she’s been painted into by Cody, and it all has a woebegone 1980’s ‘After School Special’ feel to it. Disappointing but passable.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at RLJ Entertainment provided me with a DVD copy of PARADISE by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.