By R. Paul Dyck
A big-name star, an acclaimed director, and a movie based on a best-selling novel–sounds like a match made in heaven.
It is this idea of paradise that is explored in The Beach, a film that takes the audience on a journey where perfection is corrupted by the lusts and desires of the human heart.
Yet if The Beach is a story of paradise lost, the same can be said of the movie itself. All the pieces are in place for a powerful film; it is the first pairing between British director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, starring in his first film since the ultra-successful Titanic. But, as the movie indicates, even the best of intentions can go awry.
The Beach focuses on the experiences of Richard (DiCaprio), a traveler seeking refuge in the streets of Bangkok from the numbing effects of technology and society. Richard is searching for something different–any thing or experience that can provide a sense of reality to his mundane life.
During his stay in Bangkok, Richard meets a drug-addict, Daffy (Robert Carlyle), who will change his life forever. Seemingly crazy and paranoid, Daffy tells Richard about an island paradise–a perfect beach unsullied by tourists. Richard initially brushes Daffy off as a rambling lunatic, but when he finds a map leading to the island pinned to his door, he believes this may be the "something different" he’s been looking for.
Accompanied by a couple of French travelers Etienne (Guillame Canet) and Francoise (Virginie Ledoyan), Richard sets out on a journey to discover this "paradise."
The trio eventually reach the island–a world of beautiful beaches, endless ocean, and an unlimited supply of marijuana. The island is inhabited by a small community of travelers led by a woman named Sal (Tilda Swinton), and very quickly Richard and his companions are drawn into this secret utopia–a heaven they call their own.
Yet when outsiders threaten to intrude on this paradise, Richard begins to see the flaws in his "perfect" world, and it is here where the heart of The Beach is revealed. The community has claimed ownership of this paradise, and will do anything in order to keep it to themselves, even it means killing.
The cast consists of a number of hits and misses. Carlyle is wonderful as the maniacal Daffy, and Swinton gives Sal an air of authority and power. DiCaprio, on the other hand, seems somewhat miscast in the role of Richard. He is always capable of emitting an aura of confidence and cockiness ala Titanic, but is unconvincing in scenes requiring a more subtle touch.
The Beach is most effective when it stays closest to its heart, and this happens within the first and last half-hours of the movie. The film opens with a grandiose sequence that fully captures the overwhelming breakneck pace of the modern world, a world overrun by tourists and technology.
Equally effective is the final sequence, which shows the paradise gradually sliding into chaos, finally revealing the community’s heart of darkness.
However, the film loses focus, meanders through the middle-half, and diminishes from an excellent film into a pretty good film. A lot of time is spent playing off of DiCaprio’s sex appeal, as is evidenced by a pointless romantic tryst between Richard and Francoise.
Boyle seems to have had a definite idea of where to begin and where to end the adventure, but was unsure about the journey to take place in between. Thus The Beach becomes a somewhat unfulfilling journey–a wonderful destination with sparse scenery along the way.