Films

Paradise and purgatory

PATRICIA HLUCHY August 17 1998
Films

Paradise and purgatory

PATRICIA HLUCHY August 17 1998

Paradise and purgatory

Films

RETURN TO PARADISE Directed by Joseph Ruben

The moral quandary used to be a Hollywood staple—until it was supplanted by ever dumber frolics and blow-’em-up-real-good effects. So it is refreshing to see a movie that turns on a classic ethical dilemma: should a person undergo years of hardship and perhaps risk his life in order to save another. That is the premise of Return to Paradise, loosely based on the 1990 French hit Force Majeure, and a more-than-serviceable drama about a young man’s discovery of his conscience. Sheriff (hot new talent Vince Vaughn, who played the hustler in Swingers) is a benign sociopath, a goodtime boy with little regard for others or even himself. He spends five sybaritic weeks in Malaysia with the idealistic Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix) and Ivy League engineer Tony (David Conrad). After the trio breaks up, Lewis is busted for possession of the hashish that fuelled their Asian idyll, and has enough of the drug to be considered a trafficker under Malaysian law. He will be executed unless at least one of his fellow partyers shows up to spend some time in nasty Penang prison.

Enter Beth (Anne Heche), the lawyer who is handling Lewis’s case in the United States. It is two years after his arrest, and the date of his hanging approaches. She tracks down the unwitting Sheriff and Tony in New York City, entreating them to return to Malaysia to serve three years each. At first, predictably, Sheriff will have none of it. But things get interesting as he realizes that he does have at least a vestigial soul.

Among the solid cast, Vaughn demonstrates real talent as he evokes Sheriffs journey to compassion. And Phoenix {To Die For) again reveals his emotional depth as an actor. Joseph Ruben’s direction is mostly workmanlike, with awkward touches of melodrama. But he does cleverly intersperse horrifying, twoor three-second glimpses of Lewis in his fetid cell with the struggles going on in New York. All in all, Return to Paradise offers a cool, humanist respite from a summer of movie pyrotechnics.

PATRICIA HLUCHY