What a pleasure it is to watch actors create multilayered characters who surprise us repeatedly with their candor.
"Return to Paradise" is a terrific summer surprise. Wrongheaded studio trailers suggested a standard thriller. Instead, it is an absorbing morality play with excellent acting by Anne Heche, David Conrad, Joaquin Phoenix and Vince Vaughn. Vince who? After this movie, that won't be a question. What a pleasure it is to watch actors create multilayered characters who surprise us repeatedly with their candor. When characters are this interesting, plot is secondary, and improbabilities are easily forgiven.
Still, as context for the moral dilemma they face, here's the plot: On a trip to Malaysia, Sheriff (Vince Vaughn), Tony (David Conrad), and Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix) pull a dumb stunt involving hashish and a rented bicycle that in America might be regarded lightly as a first offense, but in many Asian countries calls for a death sentence. Lewis spends two years in a frightening, filthy jail while Sheriff and Tony pick up their lives back home-Sheriff as a limo driver, Tony as a successful construction manager.
With Lewis's hanging only eight days away, Beth (Anne Heche), his persistent lawyer, finally locates Sheriff and Tony. Beth tells the two men the Malaysian court will stay Lewis's execution if they return to serve three years each in prison, or six years if only one of them returns.
The time frame forces Beth and Lewis's friends to go through a truncated process of self-discovery. No excuses possible, no delays. The men must decide whether to save their friend at the expense of three years, and possibly the loss, of their own lives.
The strength of this premise lies in its plausibility. Knowing that many Asian countries sentence drug dealers to death, we can easily believe a court could take the life of an American vacationer. Nor is it far-fetched to imagine the same court setting such conditions for canceling an execution. The very possibility of this situation is what draws the audience neatly into the tortuous debate between each person and his conscience. "What would I do?" is the inevitable and compelling question, and it is one not simply framed or easily answered in this movie. The moral dilemma, along with the complex people wrestling with it, becomes personal for the audience.
Watch for the startling and original performance of Vera Farmiga as Tony's girlfriend; and look too for the bewildering cross-cultural complications that engulf the Malaysian courtroom. Think, for instance, of what can happen when the American press forces an Asian judge to lose face.
Lewis once told Beth, "Sheriff is better than he thinks he is." That is precisely the character that Vince Vaughn develops so well. His performance is a masterful expression of what a cynic finds when he finally looks inside himself. Anne Heche, all skin and bones and intensity, is a live wire, a fuse rushing toward the explosion. She and Mr. Vaughn are a grand team, two intelligent people looking desperately for the best in themselves. This is one to see.
Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 500
Studio : Polygram
Rating : R
Running time : 1h49m
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