Return To Paradise

1998, Movie, R, 110 mins


This well-intentioned moral tale, in which a careless vacation indiscretion comes back to haunt two New Yorkers, never feels as compelling as it should. Three footloose and fancy-free dudes -- Tony (David Conrad), Sheriff (Vince Vaughn) and Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix) -- meet in Malaysia and have the buddy-buddy equivalent of a three-way summer fling. For a month they share a beachside hut and while away the days smoking hash, chugging beer, seeing sights and shacking up with local lasses hot for their strong American dollars. This hedonistic idyll ends when Tony and Sheriff head home, taking care to dump their local dope in the trash: Hey, they've seen MIDNIGHT EXPRESS. Two years later, up-and-coming architect Tony is living the chic SoHo life, and Sheriff is hustling bucks as a limo driver. They're both contacted by attorney Beth Eastern (Anne Heche), who tells them Lewis is on death row back in Penang, convicted of drug dealing under Malaysia's tough drug laws. Unless they go back and accept their share of the responsibility -- which includes time in the slammer -- Lewis hangs in eight days. Based on a French film called FORCE MAJEURE (that starred Kristin Scott Thomas before her breakthrough role in THE ENGLISH PATIENT), the film poses an interesting and potentially wrenching moral question, and attaches it to a situation designed to ring the "it could have happened to me" bell in a good number of viewers. But despite solid performances from the leads, it comes shrouded in a heavy cloud of ethics-class complications that makes it feel like a "dilemma of the week" TV movie. It also features a couple of formulaic plot developments, notably an unconvincing romance between Beth and Sheriff and the awkward intrusion of a cynical reporter (Jada Pinkett Smith), whose threats to go public with Lewis's quandary are clearly meant to crank up the pressure, but simply feel forced and Hollywoodish. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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