A bunch of pleasure-seeking Westerners have no problem stirring up trouble in an Eastern paradise in “The Beach,” a visually resplendent but dramatically uneven adaptation of Alex Garland’s engaging bestseller by the Scottish “Trainspotting” crew. Anchored by a solid central theme — that of the need for children of the virtual generation to seek out real adventures and experiences — this story of a young man’s intense immersion in a rarefied communal existence on a remote Thai island manages to maintain reasonable interest throughout. All the same, its narrative waters become rather muddy in the late going, and its currents finally don’t run very deep. With a campaign hinged upon the return of Leonardo DiCaprio to the screen in a starring role for the first time in nearly two years, Fox release looks to wash ashore on a B.O. high tide en route to ultimate mid-level figures. Foreign potential is strong.
After stumbling badly with their first American feature, “A Life Less Ordinary,” director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald and scenarist John Hodge recover their bearings to an extent on this ostensibly exotic but considerably more grounded work.
While sticking to the tenets of the rather extravagantly praised 1997 tome by the then-27-year-old British writer, filmmakers have made some key dramatic and commercial accommodations by making the protagonist American rather than English and giving him a romance and a separate sexual tryst that don’t exist in the book, as well as by moving some of the violent confrontations more center stage.
Though the first of occasional voice-over narration passages explicitly denies the viewer any background info on him, Richard (DiCaprio) is nonetheless a recognizable type, a member of the army of Amer-Euro Lonely Planet backpackers in their early 20s who like to think of themselves as “travelers” instead of “tourists” and who are forever on the lookout for the latest off-the-beaten-path destination, preferably a place where the digs and drugs are dirt-cheap but that, a year or two hence, will no doubt be on the tour-group circuit.
Ensconced in a bug-infested Bangkok dive, Richard meets the self-named Daffy Duck (Robert Carlyle in a manic cameo), a burned-out Brit who, before expiring by his own hand, gives Richard a map showing the way to an alleged paradise on Earth, an unspoiled island off the Thai coast that reps the ultimate escape from “civilization.”
Impulsively, Richard asks two other chance neighbors, beautiful French couple Francoise and Etienne (Virginie Ledoyen and Guillaume Canet), to join him on his search for the legally off-limits destination, and ill-advisedly tells some Yank stoners (Peter Youngblood Hills and Jerry Swindall) about their plans and leaves them a copy of the map.
Twenty minutes in and they’re on the little island, having swum the final leg of their journey. Exhausted but exhilarated, the trio is stupefied to find an enormous and well-tended field of marijuana plants that’s guarded by some bonged-out armed goons.
After escaping via a “Butch Cassidy”-like high dive off a hundred-foot cliff, they are discovered by the amiable Keaty (Paterson Joseph), who escorts them to their ultimate destination, a rough-hewn settlement inhabited by 30-odd Euros who would seem to have found the end of the rainbow.
Located alongside a perfect white beach and an exquisite lagoon, the community is virtually self-sufficient. Under the purview of their nominal leader, the imposing English woman Sal (Tilda Swinton), everyone has daily tasks — fishing, cooking, building, etc. — that contribute to the group’s survival, but most time is given over to leisure. As Richard says after being quickly welcomed into the fold, “I found my vocation: pursuit of pleasure.”
The one pleasure momentarily denied him is the opposite sex, but that is soon remedied (in a major departure from the book) when Francoise dumps Etienne for Richard, their union celebrated in a frisky underwater gambol.
Once this is accomplished, however, pic strangely does not attempt to strike any further sparks between the two ultra-attractive leads. Instead, in another invention, Sal brings Richard along on a provisions trip to the mainland, where they not only indulge in a tent-silhouetted one-night stand but have the misfortune of running into the dreaded Yanks.
Latter are planning to check out paradise, a big no-no because Sal’s deal with the warlords of weed is that she and her gang can stay on their part of the island as long as no further interlopers are allowed.
From this day forward, they live in dread of the day these space cadets show up. Other things start going south as well: Francoise gets wind of Richard’s fling with Sal and leaves him; the already strained relations between Richard and Sal’s belligerent b.f. reach a breaking point; Richard starts communing with the deranged spirit of the late Daffy in an unmistakable reflection of the Willard-Kurtz summit in “Apocalypse Now” (actually excerpted earlier on); and three resident Swedes are horribly mauled by a shark.
Once the blissed-out Yanks are spotted by the drug guards, the tropical green turns sickeningly to red, making “real” experience hit home for all concerned and ending any lingering notions of a utopian ideal.
The book was often likened to “Lord of the Flies” for its depiction of high-minded group dynamics gone bad, but this comparison, while convenient, is misleading, because no ideology is proposed at the outset, and it’s really the chance incursion of outside forces, as much as anything, that turns things sour; before Richard and his friends arrive, the group has been thriving, evidently in mellow fashion, for more than five years.
The film suffers from allowing only four or five of the commune’s members to pop out from the crowd and from not sketching in more diverse character traits.
At the same time, the script gives Swinton enough room to create an indelible portrait of a superficially fair but latently imperious woman whose selfishness eventually attains ruthless proportions. Swinton’s is quite the most interesting character on board here.
Richard is too much the American Everyman and not enough of a well-defined individual to entirely capture one’s interest and imagination, and DiCaprio, while perfectly watchable, does not endow him with the quirks or distinguishing marks to make this man from nowhere a dimensional character.
He seems understandably intrigued by, but hardly obsessed with, the initially friendly but elusive Francoise, and the way their subsequent relationship is presented hardly makes it seem like a sizzling romance.
Actor is best here when he mixes drollery with mock pride, as in a spirited scene in which he regales the group with how he fought a shark to the death. Canet’s Etienne disappears into the foliage once his honey throws him over, while Joseph warms the screen whenever he’s on.
Boyle and lenser Darius Khondji, working together for the first time, deliver a highly evolved and designed visual style that aims to surprise and stimulate at all times, and often succeeds. The natural locations photographed in various spots in Thailand are sumptuously serviced, and it’s only in some of the closer work with the actors that the approach is questionable, as Khondji seems reluctant to light faces so as to set them off from the backgrounds.
City life, especially when seen mid-pic after inhaling life on the island, is made to seem particularly polluted, congested and unpleasant. Production designer Andrew McAlpine has created a plausibly and attractively rough-hewn compound for the back-to-nature frolickers, while costume designer Rachael Fleming and editor Masahiro Hirakubo, both Boyle regulars, make imaginative contributions. Angelo Badalamenti’s pleasingly varied score is abetted on the soundtrack by nearly two dozen well-chosen pop tunes.
While the novel makes much more of how full Richard’s head (and, by extension, those of others in his age group) is with pop culture detritus and its related techno/virtual/faux-experiential components, and has rather more to imply about the motives for Western trespass on ever-more-exotic turf, the film is content to suggest that no earthly paradise can presume to remain immune from the mix of good and evil, and of the constructive and destructive, in the world at large. That’s fair enough, but also not really enough to make “The Beach” any more than moderately compelling even at its best.