Not entirely the “National Lampoon’s Outward Bound” exercise suggested by its trailer, “Without a Paddle” is instead an unstable — if mostly painless — mix of low comedy, stabs at higher silliness, and schmaltz. Latter is the same computer-spat sentimentality director Steven Brill previously sandwiched into his chucklesome oeuvre of Adam Sandler vehicles and “The Mighty Ducks” chapters. This latest opus will appeal to the same audiences, possibly in smaller numbers due to lack of an identifiable franchise or marquee stars. Modest late summer hardtop traffic will be followed fast by splashier rental biz; however, foreign prospects look up the creek.
Home movies of four friends from childhood to high school graduation are shown under the opening credits. Great things are expected of them all, but, 10 years later, that prediction has not panned out. Petite, perennially picked-on Dan (Seth Green) is a doctor, but still dateless and a fraidy cat. Genial Jerry (Matthew Lillard) is so hooked on surfing that he pays dangerously little attention to both a corporate job and live-in girlfriend (Bonnie Somerville). Tactless loudmouth Tom (Dax Shepard) claims he’s happily selling Harleys for a living, but has high gambling debts and low self-esteem.
The clique’s fourth, most stellar member Billy has just died, albeit in typically zesty fashion — while para-sailing in Costa Rica. The three others are reunited for Billy’s funeral and afterward impulsively decide to realize their shared childhood dream and find the lost treasure legendary real-life thief/plane hijacker D.B. Cooper disappeared with in a 1972 Pacific Northwest bailout. Turns out Billy had been working out the likely landing spot of that vanished figure all this time. So, armed with his maps, a canoe and much beer, protags head to Oregon.
Up to this point, entirely New Zealand-lensed pic has been sort of a dumbed-down “Big Chill” for early-’70s-born boy-men who still get misty over “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones” collectibles (seriously, those things actually figure in the plot). Some scenes border on the downright mawkish. Last reel also trades in generic “Awww…” moments, making the important points that friendship is good, life is for living, and loyal girlfriends are for proposing to.
In between, of course, things lighten up considerably, if unevenly. Our heroes run afoul of mean sheriffs, bears, Class Five rapids, and two chunky “Deliverance”-style hillbilly brothers (Ethan Suplee, Abraham Benrubi) — inadvertently setting the latters’ vast illegal pot farm alight. Remainder of pic is spent on the run from these well-armed crazies, with eventual help from anti-logging hippie chics (Rachel Blanchard, Christina Moore), and a shaggy mountain man (actual “Deliverance” star Burt Reynolds), who may be connected to old D.B. Cooper himself.
A few iffy f/x aside, feature is technically smooth and goes down easily enough but without making much of an impression. Chief flaw is that neither script nor direction find a consistent tone to unite funny references to other movies, coarse jokes, the occasional inspired ones (the wet, naked & gay-panicked trio’s having to sleep huddled together for warmth is nicely milked), slapstick action sequences, and earnest emotional displays that beg for some saving layer of irony.
Three leads each have their moments, though they would’ve had more with sparkier material. Reynolds can be a very funny character comedian on demand, so it’s too bad he’s asked to pretty much play it straight here.
Original score by Christophe Beck is blah, but music supervisor Julianne Jordan makes good use of some oldies as well as new tunes.