It must be exhausting trying to keep one’s worldview set to “scathing” at all times, but Diablo Cody doesn’t waver from her snappy-sarcastic approach in her predictably hipper-than-thou directorial debut, “Paradise,” about a small-town church girl who loses her faith and hightails it to Las Vegas to catch up on all that missed sin. Cody handles helming duties competently enough for a first-timer, though her acid wit — once the freshest thing in town — now sounds shrill and bizarrely out of touch. Though the VOD-led release may appease the Cody faithful, paltry theatrical turnouts indicate her desperate need to evolve.
In contrast with the devilish pen name she chose for herself, Cody christens her leading lady with the most goody-goody moniker she can think of before sending her poor lost Lamb (Julianne Hough) on a Vegas bender, where the repressed young lady can finally experience such no-nos as “firewater” (drinking), “rhythmic bobbing” (dancing) and yanking the “one-armed bandit” (gambling).
Thankfully, that crisis of faith — which could have gone a far more conventional route, limited only by its PG-13 rating — is ultimately just a pretext for Lamb to befriend two characters whom her parents (Holly Hunter and Nick Offerman) would surely disapprove of: lounge singer Loray (Octavia Spencer) and casino bartender “Sweet” William (Russell Brand, looking like a rock-’n’-roll Jesus). Throw in a heart-to-heart with an aging call girl (Kathleen Rose Perkins), and Lamb can emerge from this unconventional spirit walk a more worldly person.
Between “The Hangover” and last year’s excellent yet underseen “Electrick Children” (which also follows a devout girl adrift in Vegas), the bar has been raised awfully high for Sin City outings. Putting her own spin on things, Cody makes her heroine the lone survivor of a gnarly plane crash, which she opts not to show — a missed opportunity, if ever there was, like “Flight” minus the first 20 minutes. Instead, Hough spends the entire film popping painkillers and nursing her scars, her arms and legs encased at all times in surgical support hose.
Like Cody’s best-known character, pregnant teen Juno MacGuff, Lamb demonstrates how a young woman adapts when an unplanned situation is thrust upon her (the same could be said of demonic possession in “Jennifer’s Body”). And yet, Lamb’s burden backfires in that it’s virtually impossible to relate to her situation: Who in her right mind responds to a near-death plane crash by hopping on the next available flight? Wouldn’t surviving actually strengthen most Christians’ faith?
Cody doesn’t do her maiden directorial effort any favors by trusting Hough to carry the show. Though pretty in an above-average white-girl kind of way, the stiff “Dancing With the Stars” winner lacks the spark to make us care. She’s not convincing as either a rebel or the kind of backwards Christian girl who snaps, “This stuff smells like a whore,” after sniffing a bar of hotel soap. It’s obviously Cody, not Lamb, talking most of the time, even though this conservative character couldn’t be more anti-Diablo.
As the scallywag itching to get under Lamb’s compression garments, Brand is his charmingly obnoxious, reedy-voiced self. He and Spencer convincingly embody the tired, seen-it-all side of Vegas, shepherding the wide-eyed blonde through a mundane tour of the city that only locals experience (explaining the little-known fact that most of the Strip exists in a town called Paradise, not Vegas). Lest you think Spencer might have been a coup of color-blind casting, the script goes and indulges a wink-wink digression on “the Magical Negro.”
Unless audiences are completely in sync with the sense of humor on offer, this flavor-of-the-month attitude starts to go sour by the writer’s third or fourth film. It happened with Todd Solondz, Sacha Baron Cohen and to some extent Alexander Payne, where audiences get hip to the brand of misanthropy being sold. Cody shows promise as a director, paving over the bumpy patches with clever song choices, but needs to mix things up if she hopes to continue.