The Beach Directed by Danny Boyle The Beach, the Leo-goes-tropical movie, sends the newly buff DiCaprio to a remote Thai island where a group of Western dropouts has decided to stay forever, keeping the place hidden and the world out. Thanks in no small measure to Darius Khondji's gorgeous widescreen cinematography, this seaside hideaway looks as spectacular as it is legendarily supposed to be. But people keep referring to it as "paradise," which I take mainly as a sign of the ill-educated, metaphorically muddled times we live in. They don't mean paradise. They mean Eden?you know, Garden of.
The Beach will, I think, do really well at the box office not only because it offers Leo sans shirt in his first post-Titanic role, but also because it will be (misleadingly) advertised as an "escape to Paradise"?and who wouldn't want that? In the middle of a punishing winter (the film's release could not have been more perfectly timed), those acres of white sand and aquamarine shallows under a golden sun do look damn inviting. But I would also hazard that the movie won't do super-spectacular (i.e., Titanic-scale) business because its narrative is Edenic, not paradisical, and people generally don't like their imaginary holidays freighted with moralistic reminders of death and human imperfection.
The film comes to us from a team that, to me, was not only the most interesting example of filmmaking talent to emerge from Britain in the 90s but also an extremely intriguing model of collective creativity. Director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald and screenwriter John Hodge (who here adapts Alex Garland's novel) were, in fact, the only Brits to make a real go of imitating the Amerindie ethos of the last decade. Their low-budget debut, the Scottish crime comedy Shallow Grave, borrowed pages from the Coen brothers successfully enough to win a share of international renown. It also positioned them to do the screen version of Irvine Welsh's acclaimed novel Trainspotting, which became an humongous hit in Britain and a fair-sized one elsewhere.
Really sharp filmmaking talent being as rare as it is in Blighty, I was a bit disappointed to see these guys decamp to the U.S. with their third feature, the underrated screwball comedy A Life Less Ordinary. But to give them their due, they never promised otherwise. They were obviously in love with American movies from the get-go, and their genial lack of pretension meant that they positioned themselves not as high-flown artists but as superior entertainers, which they indubitably are.
Adhering to a Three Musketeers ethic (they were four, with actor Ewan McGregor, prior to Leo's advent) has presumably helped them withstand the fragmenting pressures and business vagaries of Hollywood, at least more than any single filmmaker would be likely to. Individually, Boyle would simply be another element in a studio package. As is, he, Macdonald and Hodge are like a mini-studio within a studio (for the last two pictures, 20th Century Fox), which accords them the kind of leverage that accrues to a united front. There is a lot of practical advantage?even wisdom?in such an arrangement. Yet while it's surely worth the scrutiny of other young filmmakers, it presumably works due to a degree of personal chemistry far exceeding that exemplified by the three main characters of The Beach (or for that matter, of Shallow Grave).
Indeed, the loose-knit theme of their movies to date is the difficulty twentysomethings face trying to maintain the bonds of affection when circumstances turn nasty. In The Beach, Leo, playing an American sojourner named Richard, is not alone for long. He lands in Bangkok doing the typical backpacker-in-search-of-exotic-thrills thing, and soon enough is staying in a grotty dive where an evidently half-cracked Brit named Daffy (Trainspotting's Robert Carlyle) gives him a map showing the insular location of the mysterious Beach, then promptly turns up dead, seemingly by his own hand. You can't imagine Gary Cooper itching to share such information, but Richard, being a contemporary youngster, craves companionship and so invites along a young French couple he's spotted in the hotel, Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen) and Etienne (Guillaume Canet).
I'm not sure whether to compliment Leo's acting or his casting, but his Richard is convincingly shallow, superficial, all but empty. The movie passingly shows him playing Nintendo even in moments of crisis; it also repeatedly demonstrates how selfish and insecure he is in the presence of women like, of course, Françoise, who both attracts and frustrates him from the first. If The Beach were obviously not trying hard to appeal to a young audience, it could be played more cuttingly and directly as a satire of the self-absorbed childishness of young Americans like Richard, who's noticeably less mature than his French companions.
But it's immaturity of a more general sort that this tale aims to expose. Richard and his companions, on reaching the coast, are obliged to swim to the island that contains the Beach. Once there, they discover that the island is split between a bunch of Thai thugs, who guard their well-cultivated marijuana fields with automatic weapons, and a colony of Western young people who think they've found the perfect refuge in the Beach and mean to stay forever. This coexistence is tenuous at best. The thugs have made it clear that they want no one else coming to the island, and though the colonists welcome Richard and the French as new recruits, their ethos demands that?in the name of fun?they shun the outside world.
While the author and makers of The Beach apparently wince at comparisons to Lord of the Flies, the movie's actually more like a hybrid of Capra's Lost Horizon?with a Shangri-La that's tropical rather than alpine?and a nontraditional Swiss Family Robinson. But as allegory is not a form that comes naturally to many contemporary fictioneers, The Beach could use some of William Golding's facility in that department. The film's at its most persuasive and enjoyable early on, when it's in a mood of adventure and discovery. When it reaches its eponymous destination and Significance looms, the narrative's gears begin to grind.
What are we supposed to make of this band of willful castaways, who ask only that life be a permanent vacation? For a moment, mindful of the snowy slush outside the theater, you can't help but embrace the beguilement of the film's conceit. And Boyle's skillful enough at creating a sunny sensual wraparound that, at least until a couple of hours after the movie's over, you don't think of Gilligan's Island and wonder if Leo ever frets about ending up as his generation's Bob Denver.
The problem at the film's center is that the island colony doesn't register as a collection of real people who've worked out a common ethos and a practicable form of self-governance. Instead, as happens in a lot of second-rate imaginative literature, they come off as the rather forced and reductive realization of an, ahem, Idea. That concept is clear enough: these First Worlders think they've escaped greedy materialistic Western society to live in a kind of Bain de Soleil communism, but in fact they've simply traded one form of selfishness for another. When push comes to shove, they?and especially their de facto queen bee, Sal (Tilda Swinton)?are willing to kill their friends to maintain their swell lifestyle.
Since this is no more profound than it sounds, Boyle and company have to keep revving things in order prevent the underlying ridiculousness from showing through. Thus Richard has an improbable fling with Françoise, gets seduced by Sal, escapes the sharks that leave big holes in the escapism of some of his fellows, and later takes to imitating Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now while doing penance for having given out a map to the island before leaving the mainland. (Naturally, though the filmmakers make a couple of glancing attempts at humanizing the Thai pot militiamen, they still come off as Others typically do in the post-Midnight Express genre of Whitebread Innocents Abroad.) And climactically of course, there's the wow-heavy realization that Eden always gets fucked up by its fallible, me-first human inhabitants.
The shame is, the obvious ideas that The Beach trumpets conceal others that might've proved far more fruitful. In recent times, only The Blair Witch Project has cleverly probed the question of what happens to young people who're pushed out of technology's womb and made to confront the remnants of nature. What the kids in that film discover is a lot more sobering and intellectually provocative than the aborted vacation that is The Beach's predictable destination.
Reeling The Sundance Film Festival's year 2000 edition struck a lot of my colleagues as its most interesting and productive year in a good while, which made for a felicitous transition from the esthetically unstable indie-film 90s into the coming decade of digitization. Since I was only at the festival a few days, I can't evaluate its overall results, but I did see two films that really stood out.
Setting Ethan Hawke as the Prince of Denmark in contemporary Manhattan sounded unpromising at best, but Michael Almereyda's Hamlet turns out to be an extraordinarily fascinating and accomplished movie that, in terms of Shakespeare adaptation, easily trumps the likes of Julie Taymor's Titus and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. Almereyda has assembled an ingeniously offbeat cast?besides Hawke, who's very good, there's Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius, Bill Murray as Polonius, Julia Stiles as Ophelia, Liev Schreiber as Laertes, Karl Geary as Horatio?that does consistently inspired work, but even more impressive is the assurance that bridges his grasp of the material and his sense of present-day New York as the perfect place to reimagine it. Making the most of the city's castle-like skyscrapers and steel and glass escarpments, Almereyda's style has a cool Godardian sheen that always manages to be intelligent, controlled and understated just when it might've turned showy and obvious. I can't wait to see this Miramax release again when it opens in May.
Tom Gilroy's Spring Forward may or may not get a Miramax-sized distributor, but it's the kind of film that's destined to win friends wherever it plays. A subtle character study that becomes richer and more affecting as it moves through the seasons, it focuses on the bond of friendship that gradually emerges between an older parks-department employee (Ned Beatty) and the young ex-convict (Liev Schreiber again) who becomes his partner. One of the effects of Gilroy's unhurried pacing, which pays attention to the natural changes that surround his characters, is to remind us how addicted to the arid mechanics of plot most movies have made us. Like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, Gilroy instead puts the emphasis on people?actors as well as the roles they play?and the result builds toward an epiphany that's as emotionally rich as it is genuinely earned. In the process, he also gets superb performances from Beatty and Schreiber, wonderful actors who've seldom been better than they are here. I hope New York will have a chance to see this quietly moving film before many seasons pass.
All three New York Press members of the New York Film Critics Circle have contributed to the American Museum of the Moving Image's current, Circle-programmed series of overlooked and underseen movies of the 90s. This Saturday, Feb. 12, at 4:15, Matt Zoller Seitz will introduce his selection, the 1991 Australian film Flirting, at AMMI. Here's what Matt says about the film:
"Writer-director John Duigan's interracial romance, a sequel to his 1987 classic The Year My Voice Broke, is set against the socially repressive environment of boys' and girls' schools in Australia. It's a romantic and moving film, and one of the few to treat teenage love with real tenderness and respect. Noah Taylor is slyly funny as the hero, a white kid from the outback going to a private boys' school on scholarship; the lanky, soft-spoken, reactive character, based loosely on Duigan himself as a young man, has a rueful self-awareness that suggests a smarter, less impulsive Holden Caulfield. Thandie Newton is poised and sharp as his girlfriend, the daughter of a Ugandan diplomat who doesn't understand why her classmates think sex and race are such big deals. Moving effortlessly from awkward Friday night dances to grudge prizefights to furtive sex and revolutionary upheavals, this is one of the most assured movies of its kind ever made. It's knockdown funny, too."