Moral Characters

Reviews of the latest films.
Aug. 16 1998 3:30 AM

Moral Characters

The ethical and the numerical.

Return to Paradise
Directed by Joseph Ruben
Polygram Filmed Entertainment


Pi

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Live Entertainment

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This is the premise of Return to Paradise: Three young guys have a way-cool vacation in Malaysia. They screw a lot of Asian babes in hammocks and smoke a lot of hash. Two of them return to the United States, leaving behind their idealistic acquaintance, who plans to continue on to Borneo and save orangutans from poachers. Two years later, the men who went home are informed of what happened after they boarded the plane: Police discovered their leftover hashish (purchased for a ridiculously low sum in American dollars and tossed into the garbage as they were leaving) and imprisoned the remaining Yank. The quantity of drugs dictated that he be tried as a dealer; the punishment for dealing in Malaysia is death. The friend didn't mention his buddies until his legal appeals were exhausted. Now, the two have a choice: Return to Penang and serve at least three years under barbaric conditions, or let a good and decent man be hanged. If only one of them returns, the sentence jumps to six years.

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Movies that revolve around moral choices often have an aura of sanctimoniousness built into them: The audience is presented with the issue in the starkest blacks and whites and waits for the blinkered protagonist to "do the right thing." The approach is certainly dramatic, but it can also be too comfy, allowing you to pat yourself on the back for being nobler than the people you're observing. That's the downside of Return to Paradise, which hinges on whether a noncommittal ne'er-do-well swain (played by Vince Vaughn) "has it in him" to submit to an imprisonment that will be at best harrowing and at worst fatal. If he doesn't have it in him, there's no drama. If he does, there's no drama, either. So he sort of doesn't but maybe sort of does, and the picture hinges on whether he'll come to his (moral) senses before his buddy gets the chop. Meanwhile, the condemned man's lawyer (Anne Heche) pleads; the prisoner himself, Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix), shivers half-naked in his filthy quarters; and you munch on your popcorn and say, "I'd be a hero. I would."

Return to Paradise doesn't boast many surprises. It's straight-on, morally uncomplicated. Emotionally, though, it's dense and twisty--and smashingly potent. Its fleetness comes from its director, Joseph Ruben, who once made crackerjack, BS-free thrillers such as Dreamscape (1984), The Stepfather (1987), and True Believer (1989). He lost his way in the '90s with flagrantly commercial junk such as Sleeping With the Enemy (1991) and The Money Train (1995); and so did his True Believer screenwriter, the former Rolling Stone journalist Wesley Strick, who made his fortune and lost his good name with the abominable Cape Fear remake (1991), Wolf (1994), and The Saint (1997). With Return to Paradise, both men have shed their commercial ornamentation and gone back to their tabloid roots, aiming for stripped-down emotional trajectories and back-against-the-wall dilemmas. The upshot might be melodrama, but it's melodrama with heart, bones, sinews, and tear ducts.

Vaughn (Swingers [1996]) is the flavor of the moment in Hollywood--just saying his name ("I got Vince Vaughn!") makes you feel like a hipster. At first, Vaughn does the sort of noncommittal wise guy stud stuff you can see on any prime time soap, but the performance deepens and becomes extraordinary. He's tall, and he uses his muscular body and good looks to show how his character, Sheriff, keeps the world at bay; he's so handsome that he doesn't have to communicate with anyone--even with us. Sheriff has no center, but Vaughn gives him a roving mind that seems to circle around its own hollow core with increasing--and compelling--desperation. Vaughn is so good that by the end of the film his every gesture and step seems weighted, as if he has put on a hundred pounds. The second buddy-on-the-spot, Tony (David Conrad), is more superficially responsible and more inwardly aquiver. It's a thankless part, but Conrad makes Tony's paralysis palpable, and you don't end up hating him. As his fiancee, Vera Farmiga is seen only briefly but makes a searing impression: She's fierce and legalistic, and she fixates on the bottom-line questions in a way that frees her from looking at the moral ones.

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I t's Heche who does that--and who gives Return to Paradise its soul. The lawyer, Beth Eastern, is clearly more than a hired gun: She seems to be pleading as much for her own life as for her client's. Waifish and vulnerable, Heche doesn't have an extra ounce of flab on her, and you can read how high the stakes are in her taut body and hungrily searching eyes. Heche gives herself so directly to her material that I think she could animate anything. She was astonishingly intense as the backwoods sister of a suicidal boy in the otherwise mediocre thriller I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), and her Carole Lombardish timing was a spark plug for the tired Six Days, Seven Nights. She is the best thing to happen to movies since Debra Winger; she might even be as good as Winger--which is as good as movie actresses get.

The movie wastes no time in venting its outrage at the Malaysian system of justice that forces these absurd choices on the characters. Ruben and Strick (who rewrote the first script by Bruce Robinson, itself based on a 1990 French film called Force Majeure) remind us of the American who was caned in Singapore for writing graffiti and the Australian who was hanged in Malaysia for drug dealing. The system is presented as a given and its government's intransigence as something that no amount of diplomacy will soften. The real outrage is directed at a big-deal journalist (Jada Pinkett Smith) who dogs Beth, insisting that the way to free Lewis is to take her campaign to the media--a move Beth fears will fix the Malaysians' resolve to keep from losing face. It's a sad reflection on the times that officials of a lunatic system look like capricious gods, whereas righteous journalists are parasites from hell.

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L et me apologize to fellow Brooklynite Darren Aronofsky and to Slate diarist of two weeks ago Sean Gullette for not seeing Pi until the other day. If you haven't seen it either, hie thee hence. This is very much a first feature, with all the hyperbolic, sometimes indiscriminate cinematic energy of a student film. But it's also sensational, a febrile meditation on the mathematics of existence. The hero (Gullette) is a scurvy genius obsessed with finding a 216 digit number that's somehow at the root of all life. Tortured by headaches and nosebleeds, he lives a life of fractions and spinning tangents, and the metaphors are right there in the filmmaking, captured in the furious montage and in flurries of talismanic signs--the swirls of milk dissolving in a coffee cup, the smoke spiraling off a cigarette. Pi is in genuine black-and-white--all the grays have been cooked out of the images. With its echoes of Jorge Luis Borges, Stanley Kubrick, even Frank Henenlotter's great splatter flick Brain Damage (1988), the whole movie is so hyperalert that it seems pitched on the verge of a stroke. I'm glad I'm not as smart as its hero, because it looks really painful.

David Edelstein is Slate's movie critic.

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