The Beach and Brokedown Palace (review)

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Ugly Americans

I’d like to personally thank all the stupid, arrogant American tourists around the world for making traveling more difficult for those of us who don’t think the world owes us anything simply because we were born in the U.S of A. These two movies are for you.
Leo of the flies
I’m sure Leonardo DiCaprio is hoping to leave behind the teen-dream image Titanic saddled him with and return to being seen as a Serious Actor, but The Beach isn’t going to do that for him. In fact, his core audience is sure to, like, totally love this movie in the same way that those of us over 18, like, totally won’t.

Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio: Romeo + Juliet, Celebrity), a young American visiting Thailand, has nothing but disdain for the typical ugly-Americanism he sees around him — the binge drinking and the party-heartying of the spoiled Westerners taking advantage of Bangkok’s hedonistic atmosphere. He’s above that kind of thing — Richard wants to be a traveler, not a tourist. And then he meets Daffy (Robert Carlyle: Ravenous, Angela’s Ashes) in the ratty hotel where he’s staying, and hears from this obviously deranged nutter about a secret, remote island paradise, a perfect beach, heaven on earth.

Now, why Richard would believe anything Daffy says is a complete mystery, considering the guy’s mental state — and then, after the unpleasantness that befalls Daffy, one might imagine anyone would be discouraged from pursuing the matter. But no: Richard is determined to go native. He hooks up with the French couple next door at the hotel — Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen) and Étienne (Guillaume Canet) — and, using a hand-drawn map Daffy provided Richard with, they go in search of paradise.

They’re looking to escape civilization, but of course, the minute you’ve got more than two people together, you’ve got politics — you’ve got civilization. Though Richard spent nights in his Bangkok hotel listening, through the thin walls, to Françoise and Étienne moaning and banging away, he’s madly in love with Françoise. Sexual jealousy… can’t ever escape that. Remember, no matter where you go, there you are. Wow. The Beach is Really Deep, Man, in the way that everything is Really Deep, Man, when you’re 15 years old.

The teen contingent is likely to love The Beach not only because Leo spends much of the film shirtless but also because they’ve probably recently had their minds blown by the English-class assignment of reading Lord of the Flies. See, when Richard, Françoise, and Étienne finally make it to the island, they find a little society of dropouts already there, with their own version of civilization. Sal (the always impressive Tilda Swinton) is nominally in charge, and things seem pretty free and easy — but watch how little provocation it takes for people to start grumbling about how someone or other isn’t pulling his weight with the work necessary for their self-sufficiency, like fishing. Cliques form; people turn against one another. It’s like, irony, or something.

Lord of the Flies isn’t the only literary or film reference invoked — Apocalypse Now, Rambo, and The Deer Hunter also show up. I’m struck particularly by a comparison with The Deer Hunter, which is also about young people facing a breakdown of civilization. That film’s American soldiers in Vietnam were about the same ages as, or perhaps even younger than, the twenty- and even thirtysomethings of The Beach… and yet The Deer Hunter‘s characters seem older, more mature. Richard describes the beach as “a beach resort for people who don’t like beach resorts,” but it’s really more like a summer camp for bored, rich white kids (and one token black guy). They’re evading adult responsibilities the same way that those boozing and drugging kids back in Bangkok are — they’re just being more pompous about it. They don’t want the trappings of civilization, and yet when Sal and Richard take a rare trip to the mainland for supplies, Richard is saddled with a list of things to bring back for the others: condoms, tampons, toothpaste, makeup, hair bleach, batteries (for all the GameBoys and Walkmen). They’re only playing at going native.

I’ve enjoyed director Danny Boyle’s work before — Shallow Grave, A Life Less Ordinary, Trainspotting — but The Beach is as laughably pretentious as his other movies have been quirky and offbeat. No, wait: the first half is just kinda boring, and then the second half is boring and pretentious. Too bad for Leo — he has a lot of talent. Maybe he just needs to look for some more adult roles.

Midnight Express 90210
So these two girls, right, they’re like bestest friends in the whole world, and they take this like totally cool vacation in this place that’s like a whole different country or something, it’s so amazingly exotic. And they meet this guy — ohmigod, he’s like totally cute and Australian or something — but he gets them in like so much trouble and they go to jail, can you believe it? And this like foreign girl there is so totally mean to them. And when they’re on trial, they go to the judge, We like totally did not do this and we’re Americans anyway so let us go. And he doesn’t! It’s like total injustice or something.

That’s pretty much how Brokedown Palace feels — it’s like the WB remade Return to Paradise. Two stupid, ignorant, spoiled, naïve, rich, white American girls get busted for drug smuggling in Thailand, and we’re supposed to feel bad for them because they may have been set up and, worse, are forced to endure bad haircuts in prison.

“Yankee” Hank Greene (Bill Pullman: The Virginian, Lake Placid), an ex-pat American practicing law in Thailand, receives a tape in the mail from Alice Marano (Claire Danes: Les Misérables, The Rainmaker), who’s doing time behind Thai bars, busted for trying to smuggle heroin out of the country. She narrates the tale of how she and her friend Darlene Davis (Kate Beckinsale) planned an “amazing, memorable trip” to celebrate their high-school graduation, and how it turned nasty when the attractive young Australian who calls himself Nick Parks (Daniel Lapaine: 54, Dangerous Beauty) invited them to spend a weekend with him in Hong Kong. Flying to meet Nick in Hong Kong, they are arrested at the airport in Thailand when bags of heroin are found in a backpack one of them is carrying. Both swear they knew nothing about the smack. Can he help them?

Now, Alice tells on the tape of events she couldn’t possibly know about — such as Dar’s father’s (Tom Amandes) visit to the American embassy, where he gets the runaround from a less-than-helpful embassy official (Lou Diamond Phillips: Supernova, Courage Under Fire) — but never mind. More problematic is, oh, the entire plot. Someone put the drugs in the girls’ backpack. It had to be either Alice or Dar, because, as we learn through Hank’s investigation of their story, this is how Nick Parks’s scam works: He woos naïve Western girls so relentlessly that by the time he asks them to carry drugs out of the country for him, they’re so weak-kneed they can’t say no. Alice and Dar were both alone with Nick — which we were not witness to — so it could be either of them. Both continue to protest their innocence — Alice, especially, seems concerned that everyone believe her, crying to her father over the phone that she didn’t do it. Alice did tell Hank that she was “the bad one” — and Dar was “the good one” — but if Alice isn’t telling the truth, then she’s the greatest manipulator in the world, and there’s nothing to suggest that in the film.

“You didn’t do it and we both know it,” Hank says to Alice, but how do we know that? How does he know that? Someone put the drugs in their bag. If it was neither Alice nor Dar, the only alternative I can see is that the bellboy who carried their luggage to the cab, as they were heading for the airport, stuffed the junk into the backpack when he was hidden by the open trunk of their taxi. The camera lingering ominously on him as he slams the trunk closed, though, is the only hint that he might’ve been up to no good, and if this is indeed meant to be the case, it undermines the whole “willing mule” scenario the movie takes great pains to set up.

And that’s not the only annoying thing about Brokedown Palace (the title, by the way, is the nickname given to their prison). Prison life is a music video, in which slo-mo shots of Claire Danes are meant to express angst and Euro-techno-pop lyrics express emotional turmoil, which conveniently avoids the need for the juvenile script to attempt any dialogue richer than you’d hear in a high-school corridor between classes — the girls bicker over the backpack like they’re talking about a lost hairbrush (“you had it last,” “no, you did”) and snipe over which of them was Nick’s dupe like they were debating who should’ve gone to the prom with him. And then there’s the distasteful ugly-Americanism displayed by the fathers of both girls, who don’t care whether their daughters are actually innocent (and both seem to think the kids are in fact guilty) but demand their kids be released anyway.

In the end, Brokedown Palace borrows its resolution from the aforementioned Return to Paradise, but while it worked in that far superior film, here it feels cheap, pat, and improbable. But, I suppose, it’s no more improbable than Brokedown Palace‘s fine cast all agreeing to perform in this turkey. What were they thinking? Maybe they’d all been sampling the contents of that backpack.

The Beach
viewed at a public multiplex screening
rated R for violence, some strong sexuality, language and drug content
official site | IMDB

Brokedown Palace
viewed at home on a small screen
rated PG-13 for brief strong language, drug related material and some violent content
official site | IMDB

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