Directed by: Diablo Cody
Premise: A naïve young woman from a religious family survives a plane crash but is disfigured by third degree burns. After the accident she loses her faith and sets out to Las Vegas where she intends to experience all the taboos.
What Works: Paradise was written and directed by Diablo Cody, a filmmaker who has primarily worked as a screenwriter on movies like Juno and Young Adult and the television series United States of Tara. This film is consistent with her other work but in some ways it’s a bit more ambitious and mature. Cody’s films have often had a self-conscious hipness about them that, at its best, was highly amusing but at its worst was distracting and attempted to substitute style for substance. Paradise retains Diablo Cody’s distinct wit but it’s a little more restrained here and she creates a compelling character in a unique scenario. The film is led by Julianne Hough she is surprisingly good in this picture. Hough’s previous performances were not very good in part because she was in lousy movies like Burlesque, Rock of Ages, and Safe Haven. Here the actress is given better material and she is able to deliver on it, showing a range and depth of character unlike anything she’s done before. Her character comes from a religious and socially conservative community but her accident has led this young woman to abandon her faith and defiantly embrace the indulgences she’s been denied. This is one of the elements that’s pleasantly surprising about Paradise. Hollywood has a tendency to make rural and middle America look silly or backward. The film certainly has its fun at the expense of the conservative establishment (and that’s fine) but these people retain their humanity and it’s clear that her parents, goofy as some of their ideas may be, do love their daughter. That humanity extends to the people of Las Vegas. When Julianne Hough’s character arrives she gets involved with a seedy bartender played by Russell Brand and a disillusioned lounge singer played by Octavia Spencer. Both of these actors give very good performances and through them Paradise utilizes the clichés of the Las Vegas movie but then adds a degree of authenticity and humanity that makes the clichés fresh. Russell Brand and Octavia Spencer are a very watchable pair; these two identify that Hough’s character is wounded and instead of pouncing on her their response is to guide her through the neon wilderness. The humanity in these characters is indicative of another distinguished element of Paradise – its portrayal of the city of Las Vegas. Instead of taking her down the strip, Brand and Spencer’s characters take their new friend into the local bars and establishments in which the city’s residents take refuge from the tourist traps. This makes Paradise’s portrayal of Las Vegas unique and it emphasizes the subtext of the story.
What Doesn’t: Despite its heavy themes, Paradise is ultimately a lightweight movie and the ending is somewhat disappointing. The filmmakers do a pretty good job in the first half setting up Julianne Hough’s character to spiral downward and really hit bottom but there is a reluctance to really put the character through the ringer. Granted, the movie does not have to reach the levels of Requiem for a Dream but Paradise gives the impression that the filmmakers compromised their story and the picture ends up settling on material that is less challenging for the character and for the audience. This is especially notable in the conclusion which is rushed through and the picture ends abruptly. It’s clear that Hough’s character went through hell in her accident but her ascent out of that hell would have been more meaningful if the story had been more challenging and if the film drew out its conclusion a little more dramatically.
DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, trailer.
Bottom Line: Paradise is a small, lightweight film and it’s far from perfect but it’s also a movie trying to deal with what happens after our suppositions have been shattered. That, and the humanity and humor of its characters, makes this a unique film, one worth its brief running time.
Episode: #497 (June 29, 2014)