After a fiery plane crash leaves Lamb Mannerhelm (Julianne Hough) with permanent burns over 80% of her body, it's no surprise that her belief system starts to tip away from Jesus Christ and more toward the medical science that saves her life. The settlement from the explosion leaves her flush with cash, which her tiny Midwest community fully expects she'll put back into the Church, but she shocks both the congregation and her parents (Holly Hunter and Nick Offerman) by instead renouncing God and revealing she's off to Vegas to experience all the sin and debauchery that she was never allowed to even think about before. Upon arriving, she hooks up with bemused bartender William (Russell Brand) and disillusioned lounge singer Loray (Octavia Spencer), who agree to assist Lamb on her journey of cultural awakening.
Somewhere between her win at the 2008 Academy Awards and 2013, Diablo Cody hit a snag on her seemingly inevitable rise to the top of the Hollywood A-list. A cult television show and two flop movies later, her legacy is mostly a name synonymous with a style crafted out of pop culture references, despite the fact that she only wrote two movies that way. Her best script to date, 2011's Young Adult, ditched the clever wordplay, painting a sharply observed portrait of a complicated woman that crackled with painful truths and excellent performances. On one hand, it seems unfair that Young Adult's poor box office doomed Cody's directorial debut to a tiny simultaneous release in limited theaters and pay cable. On the other, Paradise is so stunningly limp and off-target, it's hard to imagine one could guess it was a film she'd written without being told.
Although there are hints at what might have been, a character story about loss of faith, Paradise feels like a first draft, full of dialogue that spells out Cody's thematic points, characters that have biographies but lack soul or energy, and a long list of jokes she just ought to be way above. The character of Lamb is so roughly drawn, Cody can't even settle on how naive she's supposed to be. In one scene, she jokes she's like a Barbie that got burned with a lighter, yet in earlier voice-over, she marvels at "a restaurant with a rainforest in it!" Cody's portrayal of faith is equally schizophrenic, happy to paint believers as dopes as long as it's funny. Hunter's character tries to show solidarity for Lamb by revealing she does yoga against the Church's wishes, but it's more mocking than gentle ribbing. In the Vegas scenes, all three of Cody's leads are charming and talented, and each one conveys a little of that, but they lack the foundation on which to base their characters: Lamb's goals are non-specific, and William and Loray don't seem to have any.
Even excusing the clunkiness of the script, the comedy is shockingly lame. The film is packed with jokes added during the looping stage, mainly snipes at club women (one yells "YOLO" at her friend, another asks whether or not she should throw up again before hitting the club). Loray is taking a film class, allowing her to bring up the "magical Negro" trope in order to dismiss it, which comes off as an overly defensive move on Cody's part. Even the pop culture references, Cody's most infamous calling card, fail to gain any traction. Sample line: "Last time someone Googled me, it was before Google even existed. They had to Altavista me." The line comes out of nowhere and provides no insight into the character that says it -- it's literally just a joke about search engines, thrown out in the middle of a bland conversation as a bit of spice. As a director, Cody's work is adequate but unremarkable, conveying the story but failing to hide the film's minimal budget and never really leaving a stamp on the material.
By the 60-minute mark, it's clear that Paradise isn't going to pull itself together, but its last stumble is the worst, hinting at something potentially interesting before falling back even harder on empty cliches. Lamb has an unexpected encounter with a particular person, and although their connection is simple and arguably trite, there's a fleeting glimpse of the raw honesty that made Young Adult such a pleasure. Sadly, Cody plays bits of the scene for awkward laughs that kill the moment, and neither the direction or script appear give Lamb the information that inspires her epiphany until after she's already had it. Issues with the following scenes (Lamb reverts back to broken for a moment that's more about William than Lamb, and Cody throws in one of the most on-the-nose visual metaphors of the year) become almost irrelevant by comparison. I admit, I was among those who disliked Juno's wordplay, but at least it had a voice; the true disappointment of Paradise is that its brand of mediocrity could've been crafted by anyone.
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