Beach, The (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Let me start with a disclosure: I have not read the Alex Garland novel upon which The Beach is based, so I'm not in a position to discuss firsthand whether or not it butchers its source text (according to some reports, it does). The film represents a reunion of the Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary trio of director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald, and screenwriter John Hodge. Missing is star Ewan McGregor, but he has been replaced by none other than Leonardo DiCaprio, in his first post-Titanic role (The Man In the Iron Mask, which was released after Cameron's blockbuster, was filmed before it). Sadly, while DeCaprio does a credible job as the protagonist and The Beach represents a great piece of eye candy, this film as a whole is a mess.

The Beach is divided into two sections. The first, which comprises two-thirds of the running time, is a fairly straightforward adventure/romance. It's all very Blue Lagoon-ish, with the flora and fauna consistently overshadowing the paper-thin characters. Even a silly rubber shark has more personality than half the men and women populating this movie. However, after the protracted, rather generic beginning, The Beach pulls an Apocalypse Now and plunges into incoherence. The last 40 minutes aren't merely dissatisfying - they're virtually unbearable. And, in the end, it all seems to signify nothing.

The movie opens in Bangkok, where Richard (DiCaprio) has arrived from America. In his seedy hotel, he meets his neighbors. To his right are a young French couple, Étienne (Guillaume Canet) and Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen). To his left is a manic Scotsman, Daffy (Robert Carlyle), who does his best to live up to his name. Before slicing open his wrists, Daffy gives Richard a map to paradise - a perfect beach surrounding a lagoon on an island that no one visits. Along with Étienne and Françoise, Richard goes in search of this place, and, after braving several perils, finds the small, multi-racial community established there. Led by Sal (Tilda Swinton), they are a back-to-nature group that has given up civilization to live in peace and seclusion. Richard and his two friends are accepted almost immediately into the congregation, but they gradually learn that no paradise is all it's cracked up to be.

An inordinate amount of The Beach's running time is devoted to the lifeless romance between Richard and Françoise. First, the hunky young American has to win the girl from her French boyfriend (not much of a challenge considering how wimpy Étienne turns out to be), then he has to develop something meaningful with her. However, while DiCaprio and Ledoyen look great together, there's no chemistry or heat. Passion doesn't simmer, it sputters. For the most part, with all of the glorious tropical backdrops for them to frolic in front of, these two look like they're posing for travel magazine layouts.

To say that the ending is confusing is to understate matters. With little provocation and less motivation, Richard's character goes off the deep end. He turns into some kind of wild man (á là Anthony Hopkins in Instinct) and runs off into the woods to track a quartet of tourists who have come to the island because of a mistake Richard made (he copied Daffy's map and gave it to someone else). He has nightmarish visions of Daffy and sees himself as a player in a video game, but it's never clear what all this is about. Even less credible is how a sudden shock manages to restore Richard fully to his senses. This isn't character building; it's character demolition. And, intentionally or not, the final scene is so reminiscent of a moment from Titanic that we end up looking for the lifeboats.

As is typical for a French actress trying to break into English-language films (track the trajectory of Emmanuelle Béart's career for another recent example), Virginie Ledoyen (A Single Girl) is criminally underused. She isn't given much to say or do, other than to stand near DiCaprio and allow her photogenic quality to enhance his. For Tilda Swinton (most recently seen in The War Zone), this is a surprisingly conventional role. Of all the supporting characters, Sal comes the closest to developing a real personality; it's not the actress' fault that she falls short. Finally, Robert Carlyle (The World Is Not Enough) does what he does best - froths at the mouth given half a chance. Fortunately, he's not in most of the film.

For anyone with the patience to look, there are themes to be found here. There's some heavy-duty Biblical stuff going on - even to the point where Richard drinks a snake's blood (we all know the role that the snake played in Genesis). The Beach is about the elusiveness of Paradise, and how the basic building blocks of human nature will poison what is seemingly perfect. There's also the rather vapid message that great beauty often holds great danger. Considering The Beach's strong, pro-ecological underpinning, it's ironic that charges were leveled against the production that it ruined some of the pristine locales where filming took place.

In the director's chair, Boyle never seems to hit his stride. His previous films have been offbeat and kinetic, with Trainspotting earning its label of a "tour de force." In The Beach, Boyle misses the mark and ends up mired in chaos. Aside from the video game sequences (which have a digital-like DiCaprio figure making his way through the forest, amassing a score as he goes), Boyle rarely tries anything innovative. Apparently, he quarreled with Fox about the film's direction, and, although he won that battle, he lost the war. The Beach, which is passably entertaining for its first two-thirds in an upscale "Gilligan's Island" sort of way, deteriorates rapidly through the climax and denouement.

Beach, The (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 2000-02-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1