Paradise

Plane crash odds

paradiseI’m still stewing over the movie I really want to write about, but Paradise was worth looking at for a single scene, which I’ll get to.  It’s a story centered around one night in the Hollywood version of Las Vegas (or rather, Paradise, Nevada), involving characters who play out archetypes and contrivance to the point that they sometimes seem to realize that they’re in a movie.  If nothing else, it has this wonderful line: “You’re a magical prostitute!”

Diablo Cody’s directorial debut follows Lamb (Julianne Hough), a sheltered churchgoer who has an epiphany after her body is scorched in a plane crash that kills her fiance’.  First bit of contrivance: the jet fuel managed to disfigure every part of her body except her face and hair, so we’re still left with a leading lady that any appearance-obsessed movie studio would approve of.  The kicker about the accident is that the church expects Lamb to donate her settlement money to them, and on the day she is to give a moving speech about how the accident strengthened her faith, she instead goes on a tirade that upsets every stock character within earshot (“Devil’s lies!”  “You’ve lost your way!”), including Lamb’s parents (Holly Hunter and Nick Offerman).  Lamb decides that the best way to come out of the shell she’s been in for 21 years is to spend a few days in Las Vegas, experiencing all of the “sins” she’s been warned about.

In Vegas, Lamb meets the seemingly-sweet-but-obviously-opportunistic William (Russell Brand) and talented “bar-tainer” Loray (Octavia Spencer), who agree to take care of her for the night.  None of the Superbad-style antics you’d expect to occur actually do, which would be a good thing if the film concentrated on Lamb’s growth as a person.  Really, though, the chief concern seems to be whether Lamb will abandon this idea and apologize to her parents, or have some anti-epiphany and find her way back to religion.  William and Loray give Lamb her first drink, take her dancing, show her adult magazines, help her renew a prescription for medicine that keeps her skin grafts in check, and other things that you’d probably go to the movies to avoid doing/thinking about.  But neither character happens to be around when bad things almost happen to Lamb: she gets drunk and stumbles into the laps of some ill-intentioned sleazeballs (“Hey cutie!  Come sit with us!”), tears one of her skin grafts, and ends up vomiting into a garbage can on the floor of a very scary bathroom.

Diablo Cody’s sharp writing made Juno what it was, but Paradise is not as concise and character-driven.  We still receive the inner-monologue voiceover of the main female character, which works well in both films and is actually a pretty charming way to get to know Lamb, but this film’s jokes don’t land quite as well as Ellen Page’s.  There’s a certain “out of practice” feel to the whole thing.  Juno also ended with the convenient tying of narrative bows, but the care that went into that film excused the contrivance.  Here, the things you expect to happen – but wish wouldn’t – happen.  William’s lines are sometimes funny, but later you realize that it’s only because Russell Brand is saying them (see Island Syndrome).  Loray fears that she’s playing the “magical negro” trope in this story, which leads to a funny exchange with Lamb and William, but really only drives in the fact that she’s the only non-white character with anything to do, and what she’s doing is playing a stock character.  Holly Hunter is hilarious and plays with her dialogue well, even inserting some maybe-improvised physical comedy that lands every time, and Nick Offerman’s father character delivers one line that captures the essence of every conservative parent you’ll ever meet: “We’re open to hearing about your new beliefs, as long as they are still very conservative.”

But there’s one scene that works better than anything with any of the famous actors in the film, and also functions as more than just the best scene in this movie.  Early on, Lamb is given a card with a photo of a girl on it by a random street hustler, unaware of what happens when you call the girl’s number.  Later, while Lamb vomits in a public bathroom, the girl on the card, Amber (Kathleen Rose Perkins), who has aged ten years, wanders in and expresses annoyance at the fact that someone looks like she’s about to OD in front of her (again!).  Lamb, people-oriented and still not quite believing in coincidence whether or not she believes in religion anymore, immediately recognizes Amber and attempts, despite the fact that she’s crying and addled by both medicine and alcohol, to get Amber to stay and talk to her, as this must be a fated meeting.  The scene features the best acting and writing in the film, a truly touching conversation (and hug), and the story’s best tension, as Lamb does everything to get Amber to stay in the bathroom (and to take her seriously).  The scene portrays Amber as just a person doing a job, despite her profession, and it doesn’t seem to encompass everything about her identity, which is a trap many movies fall into, depicting prostitutes as either self-despising victims, complacent machines, or glamorized porn stars.

This film actually did not need the star power.  That one scene alone could be an entire short film, and a good one.  In fact, were they developed more naturally, any of the other characters would be worth spending time alone with.  But the intention is there, and I can’t begrudge anyone who tries to make something great on their own.

Paradise (2013); written and directed by Diablo Cody; starring Julianne Hough, Russell Brand, Octavia Spencer, and Kathleen Rose Perkins.

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