You can’t talk about Paradise without paying attention to its writer-director, the Oscar-winning Diablo Cody. With films like Juno, Young Adult and Jennifer’s Body, Cody has carved out a small but distinctive niche for herself over the past few years, turning out enjoyable dark comedies about strong female characters disillusioned by the world around them. One would expect that Paradise, Cody’s first film working behind the camera, would utilize a surplus of her trademark snark to explore a story with similar themes. Unfortunately, despite a stellar cast, Paradise‘s cloying script and agonizing lack of substance often make it feel more like purgatory.
The film starts on a promising note, as 21-year old Lamb Mannerhelm (Julianne Hough) publicly denounces God and her ultra-conservative upbringing after suffering horrific injuries in a plane crash. Determined to explore the earthly pleasures she has missed out on due to home-schooling and her commune’s devout nature, Lamb heads to Las Vegas, much to the horror of her pious parents (Holly Hunter and Nick Offerman). Upon arriving in Sin City, she recruits bored nightclub singer Loray (Octavia Spencer) and rakish bartender William (Russell Brand) to help her fully experience the sordid Vegas lifestyle.
From there, it all goes downhill. Even as Lamb encounters stereotypical louts on the Vegas strip and attempts to delve into sin herself, Paradise demonstrates less edge than a Disney Channel Original Movie. Lamb’s journeys are never even remotely interesting, and there’s a tangible sense of pointlessness to the proceedings because Cody never adds in her trademark snark. Ultimately, little is accomplished by the end of this flimsy, fish-out-of-water tale’s mercifully clipped 89-minute runtime.
Strangely, Paradise‘s biggest failure is its saccharine, toothless script; given her well-earned reputation for cutting social commentary, Cody’s refusal to give her directorial debut any bite whatsoever is thoroughly disappointing. Instead, we get sickeningly perky voice-overs (“My mom calls glitter Lucifer dust,” Hough announces with insipid condescendence) and a by-the-numbers, feel-good ending that the film’s half-formed characters never convince us they deserve. Most of the faux-edgy lines in Paradise mock religion, but Cody’s treatment of Lamb and her commune feels more disconcertingly haughty than satirical. Cody has an undeniable gift for creating quippy, headstrong, likable protagonists (see: Ellen Page’s Juno or Charlize Theron’s Mavis), but none of that ability is on display here.
Hough tries her hardest to bring some humanity to Lamb, but she’s mostly let down by a script that renders her character woefully inconsistent. As she haphazardly flip-flops between asinine naiveté and piercing cynicism, Lamb is never allowed to develop into a flesh-and-blood human being. Hough tries to tug at the heartstrings by impressing the devastation that Lamb’s crash wrought on her perception of God, the world and herself, but Cody changes the subject whenever she seems poised to communicate something genuinely interesting. The only time we get some insight to understanding Lamb’s mindset comes during a very brief scene where she reveals toxic self-hatred while attempting to withstand the pain of showering. Unfortunately, Lamb’s tormented psyche, in addition to her physical scarring, is mostly hidden, and the film opts instead to focus on inane, leaden escapades across Vegas. That said, Hough’s performance is surprisingly watchable and, in a role that strips her of her typical supermodel beauty, she proves to be a better actress than parts in teen-targeted fare like Safe Haven and Footloose have suggested.
Spencer’s Loray is also moderately enjoyable to watch as a jaded, acerbic singer beaten down by the daily grind, but the character is eventually reduced to a stereotype by Cody’s writing. One of the film’s only fun lines comes when Loray bristles at Lamb’s immaturity, warning, “I’m not your magical Negro.” Through Loray, Cody strives to lambast the cinematic stereotype of older black women offering sage advice to young white people, but then she inexplicably conforms to the same cliché. Cody appears to have confused identifying a problem and doing something about it.
Brand attempts to inject Paradise with his peculiar variety of smarmy, manic sex appeal, but his large role in the film only serves to prove that the comedian is much more palatable in small servings. After a while, his presence detracts from the sappy coming-of-age story that Cody is trying to tell; Brand could have been a great addition to a more debauched, risky Paradise, but the script effectively neuters his promiscuous, boozing persona. William is also intended as a romantic foil to the idealistic Lamb, but when he pursues her, the effect is deeply uncomfortable and distracting.
Hunter and Offerman, both well-respected actors, are only granted around ten minutes of screen-time, so their God-fearing characters are never carefully examined, which feels like yet another missed opportunity. Neither of them has a single comedic line, and it’s upsetting to see two capable actors look so helpless, especially because Offerman has been cruelly shorn of his iconic Ron Swanson ‘stache (and all other hair) for seemingly no reason at all. How Cody persuaded both of them to participate in Paradise was the only burning question left in my mind as the credits rolled.
Cody also fails to leave much of an impression as a filmmaker; thanks to her dull direction, Las Vegas loses its sense of danger and urgency. Though the film bills the city as a disreputable base for drug-addled miscreants, Cody’s Vegas is frustratingly vanilla, never as perilous or squalid as it should be. As a result, Lamb’s nervous anticipation for the wicked, hedonistic diversions of Las Vegas feels entirely misplaced. Most of the film’s scenes are blandly, anonymously shot, and Cody’s growing pains as a director are starkly apparent. Paradise does not make a great case for her continued career behind the camera, though it doesn’t quite manage to renege on her ability as a writer.
Ultimately, solid turns from Hough and Spencer can’t stop the film from collapsing under the burden of its dismayingly obvious, witless script. Perhaps Cody can learn from this misfire and come back stronger than ever, but here she betrays an uncharacteristic uncertainty that allows the film to stagnate. Paradise it is not.