Rating: 2.5 / 5
Stripper-turned-writer Diablo Cody hasn’t exactly had the best rep ever since her almost-too-clever screenplay for ‘Juno’ bagged an Academy Award in 2007.
Follow-up features ‘Jennifer’s Body’ (2009) and ‘Young Adult’ (2011) – alongside her television and autobiographical work – offered diminishing returns and elicited mixed reviews, but one still hopes that her latest work, ‘Paradise’, would be a return to form.
The film marks Cody’s first stint in the director’s chair, and it is obvious that she is not sitting comfortably yet.
The premise begins promisingly enough: Julianne Hough plays Lamb, a home-schooled Christian girl from Montana leading a virtuous life, until a horrific plane crash leaves her scarred physically and spiritually.
After losing her faith in a loving God and winning a hefty settlement from a lawsuit, Lamb shocks her conservative parents (played adequately by Holly Hunter and Nick Offerman) with her plans to pack her bags for Sin City (dubbed as the “People’s Republic of Bad Choices”) to catch up on years of missed earthly pleasures.
Her disarmingly cute to-do sin list includes “firewater” (alcohol), “rhythmic bobbing” (dancing) and “yanking the one-armed bandit” (playing a slot machine).
During her day of attempted debauchery, Lamb is taken under the wings of sweet and smitten bartender William (Russell Brand) and his best friend Loray (Octavia L Spencer), a wise lounge singer who looks and sounds like Aretha Franklin but chooses to sing Radiohead instead.
And oddly enough, Lamb’s pair of shepherds in Las Vegas is much more fleshed out as characters than she is. Brand does his best work when he refrains from going over-the-top, but it is Spencer’s role as a weary diva with ambiguous family issues that mainly grounds the film.
Cody still does the quips and the quirky quotes well. Her characters frequently spout memorable lines, peppered with whip-smart punchlines and caustic wit. But beyond the sound bites, her writing is embarrassingly short on anything substantive.
Lamb (Julianne Hough) befriends William (Russell Brand) and his best friend Loray (Octavia L Spencer) in 'Paradise'
Lamb is the typical Cody heroine, a strong-willed young woman dealing with harsh circumstances, but even then, there is a counter-intuitiveness to Lamb’s snarky attitude here.
You cannot help but ask: How does an overly-sheltered backwards farm girl who has never encountered any form of pop culture in her life happen to sass and speak like Juno MacGuff?
It is clear that Lamb is less of a character and more of an onscreen proxy for Cody herself, which can be fine in most instances, but is less forgivable here considering her protagonist’s background.
The story unabashedly goes as broad and as sweetly as possible, making it difficult to emotionally invest in Lamb’s plight. Hough does herself no favours either, turning in a rather generic performance that is too dull and too bland for the audience to root for her.
It should be rather difficult to make the seedy humour and nightlife hijinks of Las Vegas look listless, but Cody somehow pulls it off. There is a certain lethargy to a lot of the scenes, reminiscent of a made-for-TV movie, dragging ‘Paradise’ down and keeping any sort of visual momentum from building.
There are moments of heartwarming tenderness, but even with an abundance of clever dialogue, these still cannot overcome the narrative’s forced journey and Lamb’s flat persona.
During the film’s relatively short 87-minute duration, there exists a few meta moments when film student Loray tells Lamb about the cheapness of stock characters and sappy life-lessons. One genuinely hopes that Cody is aware enough to heed her own character’s advice the next time around.
Formerly the Music Editor of JUICE Magazine, Hidzir Junaini is now a writing ronin by day and vampire slayer by night. Subsisting only on coffee and naivety, the 27-year-old scribe aspires to finally complete his long-gestating novel to lukewarm reviews some time in the near future. Until then, he can be found writing about film, music, nightlife and television with the misplaced confidence unique to most Mass Communications graduates.