Before I witnessed Leonardo DiCaprio's $20 million return to acting, I made the mistake of reading the novel that inspired his first post-Titanic film (excepting Celebrity). It's not that The Beach, by Scotsman Alex Garland, is a shabby read: For all the author's clumsy earnestness, there's a engaging energy to his tale of a secret Thai island haven for young adventurers, and the Lord of the Flies-style violence that erupts there. His theme--Western twentysomethings craving, even needing, the "proving ground" realness of war--made me want to kick him, but at least I felt a reaction. And that was the problem with the movie: All I could see were the subtractions and alterations the filmmakers had employed to make sure I wouldn't have a reaction. Maybe, if I hadn't read the book, I could've just floated on the surface, enjoying the scenery.
And maybe not. Imagine that you're trying to fashion a haunting image of "paradise": warm winds, palm trees, turquoise water and white sand, a band of like-minded, firm-fleshed Crusoes. Do you expose it whole before your protagonist has even arrived? Do you hype it when he does by showing him running out onto the sand and shouting repeatedly: "Wow. Wow! WOW!" or redundant babblings to that effect? (Poor Leo.) Do you portray his island companions as anonymous beach-blanket bimbos bent on smoking dope and playing volleyball? Maybe you do so if you think, very condescendingly, that this is the MTV Spring Break utopia your (American) audience longs for.
At one point, new recruit Richard (DiCaprio) declares: "It was a beach resort for people who don't like beach resorts." But the differences as described appeared to me more of quantity than kind. In the book (and I will only say that once more, I promise) the beach's inhabitants bond through the daily work of surviving: catching fish, gardening, cooking, dealing with disparate personalities. The crisis comes because the group works too well to maintain its unity. As re-created by the Trainspotting team of director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald, and screenwriter John Hodge, this sterile Beach seems only, and rather vaguely, interested in the characters' right to par-tay without interruption.
The sole distinct character, besides Richard (and he's barely there), is Sal (Tilda Swinton), the bad-bitch leader. In the book Sal plays more like an office manager who gets carried away, and her sins are shared by the group; this Sal acts power-mad from the start. She even uses Richard for sex--horrors! The filmmakers might as well paint (whore-)horns on her (and a bull's eye). Indeed, in every instance where there's a choice between subtlety and a boot in the face, Boyle and Hodge go for the latter. When Richard, fresh off the plane into Bangkok, meets a desperate, demented man (Robert Carlyle, giving it his tormented, accented best), the guy doesn't just ramble enticingly about a mysterious, magic isle: He spoons out a fucking Beach history.
Likewise, girlfriendless Richard's infatuation with Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen)--who, with her lover, accompanies him to the island--is hardly established before they're entwined underwater in MTV bliss. (Needless to say, in the book Richard doesn't get any.) It's as if the filmmakers couldn't imagine the audience sticking with an unconsummated romance--or couldn't see any woman not lying down for Leonardo. The hurried tryst spells the end of desire: From there on, they don't know what to do with the silly, used-up girl. In general, this is a movie too eager to sell its secrets: Without those hidden tensions, it fails to flow.
The open secret of Richard, of course, is that he's Leonardo. For all DiCaprio strives to act callow, then dangerously obsessive, then scared straight, the film doesn't back him with character motivations or conflicts of any weight. In one of the few visual tricks (few by Boyle's standards, that is), the director sticks his star in a video game--which is what The Beach finally resembles: a series of unsurprising scenarios populated by one-dimensional characters, from which the cipher hero must escape. There's the Tourist Trap, the Romance Wreck, the Nest of the Nasty Feministo, the Jungle Jam (which Boyle represents through laughable lifts from Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter).
The struggle behind all these set pieces is DiCaprio's attempt to flee the freezing mask of celebrity. "It's just me!" his Richard screams at (fan) Françoise, after waking up from his jungle (of fame) freak-out. "The guy without a girlfriend!" I'd call it The Beach's one convincing moment. If DiCaprio went looking for a movie that would make the Titanic prince look ordinary, even graceless, he couldn't have chosen better.
The Beach is playing at area theaters.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.