The black and white photograph shown at the start of Return to Paradise captures Sheriff (Vince Vaughn), Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix) and Tony (David Conrad) in a casual, confident moment of all-American guyness. They met shortly after arriving in Malaysia, where each came to immerse himself in a guilt-free exotic paradise. Their fast friendship --a bond formed by circumstance, convenience and compatible temperaments --is something they'll remember fondly even if they don't manage to keep in touch.
So after taking full advantage of Malaysia's cheap beachfront accommodations and abundant hashish (among other things), the trio is finally set to move on to their "real" lives. Lewis, a prototypical affluent post-hippie, is headed to a nearby orangutan sanctuary. Tony's Ivy League architecture degree should help him add more skyscrapers to the American skyline. Only Sheriff, from a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn (who scored the trip using bogus air miles), doesn't seem to have a glorious future to rush forward to.
Brief as these early scenes of carefree recklessness are, they are crucial to the jolt of harsh reality that arrives at Sheriff and Tony's doorstep two years later in the form of a tightly-wound lawyer, Beth (Anne Heche). With the frankness that characterizes Wesley Strick and Bruce Robinson's script, Beth informs them that Lewis has spent the last few years in a Malaysian prison.
The amount of hash found in their shared house was enough to have him charged as a trafficker. Under their severe drug laws, Lewis is scheduled to be executed unless one or both of them returns to Malaysia, claims part of the stash as his own, and serves prison time for possession.
At first, Return to Paradise may seem merely like an intriguing moral conundrum masquerading as a movie. But director Joseph Ruben uses the question of Lewis's fate --complicated even further by a relentless reporter (Jada Pinkett Smith) who threatens to go public with the politically sensitive story --to slowly strip each character down to their most essential natures.
This decision allows the cast to deliver some of the best performances of their promising careers. Joaquin Phoenix, Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn each begin the film embodying characters close to their previous roles or public personas, then manage to reach down and touch the nerve center of each individual.
Heche's jittery nervousness finally finds a rewarding outlet, but it's Vaughn --the cartoonish rat pack leader in Swingers --who makes the strongest impression. Sheriff (an Americanization of John Volgecherev, not a heroic moniker) is a man who doesn't expect much of himself, and Vaughn makes his discovery of previously untapped strength a quiet revelation.
Director Ruben and cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos make excellent use of the wide-screen format, particularly during the tense, chilly days in New York City when Beth challenges Tony and Sheriff's consciences.
The unfussy, direct style Joseph Ruben employs for Return to Paradise serves the complex story exceedingly well, cutting past the potential melodrama and right to the emotional quick.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.