20th Century Fox
Alex Garland’s best-selling novel The Beach is a twentysomething pothead’s daydream of tropical paradise gone bad—an anti-Lost Horizon for the jaded, post-Vietnam generation. The English hero, Richard, ventures into Thailand with a head full of flashbacks from Vietnam movies (largely Apocalypse Now) and a hunger for the kind of real-life experience cruelly denied to prosperous Western kids weaned on video games. The island utopia on which he stumbles is more exclusive than Club Med and doesn’t cost any money, but the scene goes sour, as it must: White people in Southeast Asia have a history of encountering their own hearts of darkness. Garland wrote the book in his mid-20s, a bit young to be discrediting utopian/communal ideals so conclusively. Both his paradise and his climactic inferno feel like hand-me-downs—filtered through innumerable books and films—but his fast, no-bull prose is confident enough to make The Beach read like a portrait of a generation mired in solipsistic disillusionment instead of like a too-easy product of it.
The new movie, directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 1996) isn’t remotely as savvy: It feels totally synthetic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in an escapist adventure, and Boyle can get by with the first two-thirds of the story—the part where Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio, as if you didn’t know) finds bliss amid the waterfalls and coconuts and, in a departure from the book, in the arms of a Gallic bonbon (Virginie Ledoyen) out of any Francophile’s fantasies. But when the plot takes a weird psychological turn and the hero loses his moral compass, Boyle is hopelessly out of his depth. The Beach is bound to bewilder audiences—and not just the pubescent “Leomaniacs,” who’ll wonder why their romantic idol is suddenly scampering through the tall grass and snarling like a tiger. It will also bewilder—and irritate—anyone who has decided to accept it on its own shallow terms. The movie hasn’t earned the right to go twisted and self-hating and tragic: It hasn’t lived.
From the start there’s something off in Boyle’s storytelling—a fanciness that doesn’t gibe with his narrator’s (Richard’s) point of view. Newly arrived in Bangkok, Richard checks into a seedy hotel and gets regaled through the thin wall by a raucous Scotsman (Robert Carlyle) with a tale of a “tidal lagoon sealed in the clouds.” As he babbles, the camera is suddenly airborne, moving across an ocean toward a dark, high-peaked island. Whose point of view is this? It can’t be Richard’s, since he has never been to the fabled beach and doesn’t yet buy the Scotsman’s story. If it’s the Scotsman’s, that seems a goof, too, since the mystery at this point is whether or not he’s spinning a fiction. Why does Boyle blow his first climax, so that when Richard finally gazes on the magnificent island, it’s déjà vu? Because he’ll always opt for a showy pictorial effect over one that serves the drama. When Richard and his fellow adventurers have an inkling of sharks as they swim toward the island, Boyle’s camera moves out of the depths toward their kicking legs as if it’s the man-eater in Jaws (1975). But there’s no shark: It’s just a bit of cinematic foolery.
Ah, but is that the point? Is the quote from Jaws meant to show the secondhand nature of Richard’s perceptions? Is the ambient rock music that swamps the movie meant to demonstrate that Richard has left pop culture but that pop culture hasn’t left him? When he and his French pastry make love in the lagoon amid the glowing plankton and the soundtrack throbs and pulses, should we imagine we’re watching Richard’s sex-in-the-corals MTV fantasy? Irony can camouflage a host of clichés, but at some point the filmmaker has to show the tension between how a blinkered narrator sees the world and how the world actually is. That’s what you don’t get in Boyle’s work. There’s no texture to his “reality”: The hopped-up, attention-deficit-disorder syntax of Trainspotting is the one language he knows. Only a few of the beach’s denizens—youngish Euro wanderers—are even sketchily characterized; the rest are held just long enough for us to register their lithe, tan bodies and well-cut musculature. (In which thatched hut do they keep the Nautilus machines?) There’s more verisimilitude on Gilligan’s Island.
A s if to compensate, The Beach is narrated from start to finish. “The only person I didn’t like was Bugs,” says Richard, about a fellow (Lars Arentz-Hansen) we’re only just laying eyes on. The screenplay, by John Hodge, is one of the laziest ever written, a textbook illustration of why narration was for decades a no-no in all but tongue-in-cheek noirish movies. I’ve welcomed it back: Used right, it’s a good way to add psychological nuance and novelistic detail to a medium of surfaces. But in films like The Beach it’s a way to tell us things that ought to be dramatized and to color how we look at objects before we even see them. What kind of adventure movie is it where all the imagery is predigested?
The usual kind, maybe. And for more than an hour the exotic locales and blue water and attractive young actors are enough. Tilda Swinton makes an amusingly clipped, formal Sal, the commune leader who reveals increasingly dictatorial tendencies—especially when she can justify her actions in the name of “national security.” The group shares the island with well-armed Thai dope farmers, who tolerate their presence as long as they hold immigration to a minimum. But Richard has made the mistake of copying his beach map for a pair of hapless American stoners, who threaten to blunder onto the island and bring the wrath of the natives down on these peaceful vagabonds’ heads. What would you do, The Beach implicitly asks, to preserve an idyllic way of life? Let someone die you have the power to save? Kill them yourself?
Tantalizing questions, but not in this picture. When Richard begins to unravel from the knowledge that he is the agent of utopia’s destruction and goes into a sort of psychotic funk, he leaves the audience behind. Boyle tries to bring us into his head: At one point, Richard literally becomes the posterized hero of a video game, blowing away assorted pop-up Thai bad guys. (“The forest was my territory. I was the only one with the overview. The island me. Them the invaders …”) He trashes his camp. He eats a small caterpillar. He hisses like a jungle cat. He has Mekong Delta fantasies of machine-gunning soldiers and civilians. He does everything but shave his head, gain 300 pounds, and rasp, “The horror. The horror.”
Leo, bless him, works feverishly. He’s a smart, nervy actor, and he’s stripped down and primed to do some serious emoting. But he’s playing a dumb-ass literary conceit, not a character, and he’s raging in a void. The movie doesn’t use the novel’s grisly, Night of the Living Dead/The Bacchae finale, but the one it substitutes is like a laughably moralistic teenpic in which obedient members of the clique suddenly abandon the most popular girl because they’ve seen her true, nasty colors. Ah, but is that the point? It’s supposed to seem like a teenpic because these people grew up watching teenpics, and that’s what they’d imitate? Fine. I grew up watching Siskel and Ebert, so here goes:
The Beach is monumentally unimaginative. Thumbs down!