Diablo Cody, the Academy Award winning writer of Juno, as well as the critically acclaimed TV Series, The United States of Tara, makes her directorial debut with Paradise. Julianne Hough (Safe Haven, Footloose) stars in this coming- of age film that also features Russell Brand (Get Him to the Greek) Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) and Academy Award winners Octavia Spencer (The Help) and Holly Hunter (The Piano). While the film has a lot of heart and a positive message, the execution doesn’t live up to the expectations.
Hough plays 21-year old Lamb Mannerheim, a small town girl from a strict, conservative Montana community. After a horrific plane crash leaves her entire body covered with burn scars, Lamb loses her faith and decides that she wants to experience some decadence. With a purse full of cash from her insurance payout, Lamb shocks her God-fearing parents (Hunter and Offerman) and flies to Las Vegas.
Once in Sin City, Lamb is a wide-eyed fish out of water. Despite the stares at her attire and the copious amounts of painkillers she must digest, Lamb is determined to experience “life.” She winds up at a two-bit nightclub and is quickly befriended by a seedy bartender with a heart of gold (Brand) and a bitter singer (Spencer). Lamb’s new friends show her the town, but it isn’t until the young lady is on her own that she begins to face her demons and truly begin to heal.
Paradise is a film that should be much better than it is. Cody has worked with some of the top directors in Hollywood, so you’d think she would have picked up some pointers. Instead, the movie is flat, shot like a mediocre made-for-TV movie of the week. There were many moments throughout the film that felt like Cody didn’t know what to do, so she stuck with her master shot instead of cutting to a close-up. Making matters worse is the script. The dialogue on Paradise feels like a first draft, as if Cody didn’t have time to give her screenplay a polish before going into production.
Tone is a big problem with Paradise. At times this film seems like it wants to be another story with snarky characters who speak directly to the audience (ala Juno). Yet, the rest of the movie is more sensitive and earnest. The two don’t mesh. I wish Codyhad just made the film as a sensitive look at Lamb’s life and left the slapstick (especially in the film’s opening sequences) for another project.
I can’t write off Paradise completely because it does have some merit. Hough is a nice choice for the innocent character of Lamb. I believe with better direction she could have turned in a stronger performance. Spencer and Brand give touching performances despite being straddled with some weak dialogue. Brand, in particular, shows more dramatic range than he has is recent films. Finally, the film’s message really is unique. Watching how Lamb has suffered and just wants to be “normal” is a theme that resonates deeply with me. Angry, bitter, loving and empathetic, Lamb is a special character and her journey could have been so much better. With the talent involved in Paradise, there’s no excuse why it wasn’t.