(director: Joseph Ruben; screenwriters: Wesley Strick/Bruce Robinson/loosely based on a 1990 French film called “Force Majeure”; cinematographer: Reynaldo Villalobos; editor: Andrew Mondshein; cast: Vince Vaughn (Sheriff), Anne Heche (Beth), Joaquin Phoenix (Lewis), David Conrad (Tony),Vera Farmiga (Kerrie), Jada Pinkett-Smith (M.J.); Runtime: 111; Polygram Filmed Entertainment; 1998)

“Smacked of melodrama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The contrived moral dilemma faced is that two friends must choose whether to help a third friend who was arrested in Malaysia for drug possession, which requires them to make an extreme sacrifice. He will be hanged in eight days after spending two years in jail if they don’t return and each do three years, or if one of them returns he must do six years. These three young men were post-college vacationing in Malaysia: “a paradise of rum, girls and good cheap hash.”

When Sheriff (Vaughn) and Tony (Conrad) left to return to NYC, Lewis (Phoenix) stood behind to be an activist for Greenpeace’s cause of saving the orangutan in Borneo. But before they left, they rented a 3-man bike which they never returned to their owner because a truck knocked them off the road and Sheriff threw the broken bike away rather than have it slow them down from walking back to town. The next day the police came to their residence on the bike owner’s request and they found more than a brick of hashish in the trash bin, just where Sheriff deposited it. They charged the current occupant there, Lewis, with being a drug trafficker for having so much hashish in his sole possession.

Joseph Ruben (Sleeping With the Enemy/The Stepfather/Gorp/The Good Son) has directed a lot of films that are just plain awful, the exception being SWTE. He directed this predictable drama with a heavy-hand as it lapses into melodramatics after a very emotionally moving start and after presenting a most interesting premise; it is just unfortunate that the script had no conviction to follow through on its premise. It fails to really answer the question it raised about the moral duty one has in going back to a Malaysian prison for a very casual friend, someone whom it is unlikely you will ever see again. The weakness of the film can be found in the director’s lack of courage in understanding what a decision like this really entails to the person involved. He made the film all about the Anne Heche character instead of focusing mainly on the two boys, and this allows the film to lose its sense of urgency. By adding sidebars to the simple premise, it changes the question considerably and takes the edge off the decision made. The director spoon feeds the answer that he thinks the audience wants, and it all seems to be a predictable formula-driven film instead of one filled with an unpredictable raw energy. By the middle of the film, any logical attempt at soul searching for what to do was lost in a series of obvious contrivances and clichés. Insecure directors do such things to good ideas.

The story picks up two years after the opening dreamy sequences of the boys enjoying themselves in exotic Malaysia. Beth (Heche) is in the limo driven by the cavalier and free-spirited Brooklyn born Sheriff, who hustled his way into going on that vacation by getting a frequent flyer ticket. She tells him she is a lawyer for his friend Lewis and is laying on him the details of Lewis’ imprisonment, asking him to save his life. Heche is intense and persistent, not letting up on the less than eager Sheriff to make such a commitment. She fails in her attempt to bribe him with money and then she meets Tony, who Sheriff hasn’t seen since their return from Malaysia. He is now a successful architect, just engaged. Tony tells her that he couldn’t do the six years but would go back for three years if Sheriff goes, also. Here the story gets side-tracked for bad reasons. One, a stereotypical annoying reporter (M.J.) is brought into the story to show how irresponsible the press is. The reporter threatens to break the story even as Beth tells her that her client will surely be killed if she does, that these Third World countries over-react when they are put under the spotlight of the world press. And, the second annoying development to the story, is the unbelievable romance that develops between Beth and Sheriff. It is especially unbelievable because Sheriff just mentioned how she would try anything to get him to go back and to now believe that Sheriff would fall for her after saying that, just doesn’t add up.

The only scene that made sense from this point on in the story, was the one where Tony’s fiancée (Vera) asks some intelligent questions of the lawyer and fails to illicit responses that would make me want to go back. For instance, it is illicited from Beth that there is no guarantees in writing that Tony will only get three years. To think of going to a prison in Malaysia without an official representative of the U.S. government available to offer advice and confirmation of what is actually happening, is simply ludicrous. Who in their right mind would unquestionably believe what Beth is saying? That the carefree Sheriff will become the responsible good guy after all and really go back to redeem himself for his former irresponsible behavior, is an old formula story and you can see that being the setup from the very first reel where he rescues Lewis from unsavory Malaysian drug dealers.

That Sheriff goes back because he falls in love with Beth, sends a wrong message about the dilemma the film’s premise poses. That is too easy a reason. The real question is, would one do what they can to save another’s life without getting anything in return for it? The answer to that question can only be answered individually and according to the current situation one is in. Heroes usually don’t know if they are going to be heroes, they just do what is right at the moment. It is instinctual. In this case from what I have seen of Beth’s direct confrontational approach, as difficult as it might be to say no, I think most people in Tony’s shoes would have no choice but refuse her request. As the story gets played out and we find out that Beth is holding back from the boys the fact that she is Lewis’s sister changes everything, anyway. At least, it should.

The acting was not that convincing, except one could make an argument for Joaquin Phoenix and the real fear he shows in the prison cell and on the videotape he sends to his two friends showing them how horrible he feels. The scene of Lewis in the Malaysian jail is actually of a jail cell in the Philadelphia prison system, which shows him rambling on incoherently and complaining about the cell being godless; I thought it smacked of melodrama and was not a very convincing portrayal of someone going over the edge; but, it was scary.

My thinking is if Lewis was that crazed-out and fearful of dying, why did he wait until the last moment to contact his pals?

I just wonder how many would honestly go back to save Lewis if they were in Tony’s or in Sheriff’s shoes!

I also wonder how good this film could have been in the hands of a Fritz Lang or even an Elia Kazan, or a modern director such as a Martin Scorsese.

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