Film Review: Paradise

Some laughs and nice performances, but Diablo Cody's directorial debut—affecting in spots—too often reveals its shaky, obvious underpinnings. 

In Las Vegas, an unlikely triumvirate of friendship is formed between three lost souls. Lamb (Julianne Hough), whose body has been hideously scarred from a plane crash, has escaped from a repressive Christian home and small community which have kept her sheltered from any kind of pop culture or real fun. William (Russell Brand) is a lowlife bartender strangely attracted by her innocence with, for the first time, rather honorable intentions. Loray (Octavia Spencer) is a broken-down, hard-drinking lounge singer, estranged from her family and at basic war with the world.

Celebrated screenwriter Diablo Cody makes her directorial debut with this self-penned character study which, unfortunately, reveals certain crucial limitations to her admitted talent which have been evident since her sprightly breakthrough, Juno. The self-questioning but nonetheless supremely assured and superior central character is now a definite trope of hers, and Lamb is a pretty heavily loaded prospect, from that winsomely obvious name to her shocking denunciation of God in front of her hometown parish, which sets things in motion. She picks Sin City as the likeliest place to have a real ball, but once there does nothing but negatively judge everything and everyone she sees. Admittedly, in Vegas, that's not hard to do, but the inescapable holier-than-thou attitude wears very thin by now, its Holden Caulfield roots ever more exposed.

Cody's characters do somehow manage to sneak into your heart a bit, largely through the performers' talent. Husky-voiced Hough does what she can to soft-pedal Lamb's infuriating smugness, as well as the mawkish built-in pity factor of her scarring and physical debilitation. (There are the twisted ghosts of ancient Lon Chaney and Lillian Gish and other waif-ish silent-screen victim vehicles lurking in Cody's creative mindset.) I'm no Russell Brand fan—he's always the same, it seems. But here that sameness is well-cast, and beneath the wise-ass bravado he reveals more real, refreshing vulnerability than he ever has onscreen before. Spencer is very likeable, going from incomprehensible slurring at the mic with a Radiohead cover that is a room-emptier to grudging affection for little, not-so-very-lost Lamb. At one point, she berates our heroine with her refusal to become her "magical Negro, a narrative convention in which a black person uses their special wisdom to help a white person in need. Ghost, 8 Mile, Bagger Vance." This line, while funny, says a lot about Cody's writing, being at once droll and yet too self-consciously so. Holly Hunter is totally wasted as Lamb's fascistically devout mother, who has a sentimental change of heart during the movie's undeniably sappy finale, plus there's a coda which ties everything up way too neatly.

At one point, Brand advises Lamb about the filthiness of hotel bedspreads which are never cleaned: "If you shone a backlight on them, you'd see…" and it was then that I remembered hearing the same thing on a slow news day on TV. Cody's scavenger style does produce some giggles, but she needs more felicitously original camouflage over her derivativeness.