"The Beach" marks the return of two cinematic icons of the Baby Boom Echo, actor Leonard DiCaprio, in his first vehicle since 1997's "Titanic", and Scottish director Danny Boyle, who made a splash with his first two feature films "Shallow Grave" and "Trainspotting". In this outing, they bring Alex Garland's best-selling novel of the same name to life with a lavish and sun-drenched production. And though Dicaprio does a decent job playing the story's thrill-seeking protagonist and is backed up by Doyle's sense of style, "The Beach" ends up being an ill-defined and messy affair rife with missed opportunities.
In an opening monologue reminiscent of Martin Sheen's self-reflection in "Apocalypse Now" (which is alluded to more than once in this film), we are introduced to Richard (Dicaprio), a cynical twentysomething backpacking through Southeast Asia in search of real life adventure off the beaten path. During a brief stopover in a roach-infested hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, he meets up with the appropriately named Daffy Duck (Robert Carlyle of "Angela's Ashes"), a crazed pothead who gives him a map to a remote island paradise hidden from the prying eyes of civilization.
Without wasting any time, Richard asks a French couple in the room next-door to accompany him in a bid to find 'the beach'. Etienne (Guillaume Canet) and his girlfriend Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen of "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries") jump at the opportunity, and pretty soon the trio are traveling through the Thai countryside. After swimming two miles of open sea to reach the sheltered island and barely avoiding marijuana farmers armed with AK-47s, they find a secret "Club Med"-type community inhabited by a group of well-tanned and good-looking back-to-nature types. The group, led by Sal (Tilda Swinton of "Female Perversions"), quickly embraces their new arrivals, and trio adopt an idyllic lifestyle where they spend their days engaged in communal activities, working on their tans, having fun, and getting high from the island's rich reserve of marijuana.
Of course, this idyllic existence becomes threatened, both by internal and external forces. Richard finds himself increasingly attracted to Francoise, much to the dismay of Etienne. In addition, he also has a number of increasingly hostile run-ins with Keaty (Paterson Joseph), Sal's boyfriend, who finds Richard's presence threatening, the reasons for which will be revealed. Richard also learns that even though the community espouses a number of positive values, it is ruled as a virtual dictatorship by Sal, who will do anything to keep her paradise a secret. As Richard quickly learns, though you may be able to get man out of civilization, it is difficult to get the civilization out of man.
"The Beach" tries to accomplish a lot in its two hour running time, throwing out ideas left and right, but it fails to develop any one of these ideas deeply enough to create a cohesive and satisfying story. At the heart of the film is the elusive search for paradise, a cautionary tale on the price of utopia, and this theme underlies much of what happens in the film. Along the way, a number of interesting ideas are raised, such as the community representing a microcosm of society, or how the threat of change can lay the foundation for fascism. However, none of these interesting perspectives are ever milked to their full potential. Instead, we are treated to a number of sun-swept scenes that would seem at home in a travel commercial, as well as a complete ninety-degree turn in the third act where Richard begins an incomprehensible descent into madness, only to be reeled back in by a shocking act of violence.
Another interesting angle that is not developed to its full potential is the inevitable romance between Richard and Francoise, which apparently is a departure from the book. Though the romance is quite photogenic, with a lovemaking scene set amidst a sea of glowing plankton, it seems to be more of an afterthought, as a quick means of injecting some sex and nudity into the film. Not only do we know little about Francoise (other than how great she looks in a bikini), her relationship with Richard is clumsily established, developed in a dramatically-impoverished manner, and then quickly jettisoned by the script to move on to the next 'episode' in Richard's adventure.
Mind you, "The Beach" is a beautiful film to look at, with cinematographer Darius Khondji (who did some expert lensing in "Alien: Resurrection" and "Evita") visually contrasting the crass-commercialism of the neon-lit tourist traps of Thailand to the serene splendor of the island community. Even when the story begins descending into nonsense, the sumptuous visuals are enough to make the film tolerable.
DiCaprio is certainly more buff-looking since "Titanic" (which will certainly send his Baby Boom Echo fans into a tizzy), and given the lack of depth afforded to his character, does a surprisingly decent job as the story's hero. Ledoyen isn't given much to do, other than exude sexuality. Swinton does a decent job as the film's compassionate fascist, though her character could have been fleshed out more to add some more depth to the film's ending. Finally, Carlyle, who is rapidly becoming pigeonholed into playing seedy characters, is thankfully absent for most of the film.
"The Beach" will certainly add millions to the coffers of Twentieth Century Fox, due to the star power of Leonardo DiCaprio. However, in terms of its entertainment value, the quality wavers with the scatterbrained narrative. Though Danny Boyle has certainly crafted a resplendent cinematic postcard chock full of visual flourishes, the action on the screen never amounts to very much, making for a run-of-the-mill excursion to "The Beach".