The Beach

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"Everyone wants to do something different, but you end up doing the same damn thing," intones Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio) when he realizes that Bangkok, which he came halfway around the world to see, has been drained of its distinctive character by an influx of young, party-hearty Westerners.

The Beach immediately distinguishes between a tourist and a traveler. Richard may look like the former, but in his heart, he’s out for an adventure. He finds one courtesy of his whacked-out neighbor in a low-budget hotel, Daffy (Robert Carlyle), who gives him a hand-drawn map to an uncharted island paradise.

Eager to break out of the comfort zone of tourist locales and go native, Richard recruits a young French couple, Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen) and Etienne (Guillaume Canet), as traveling companions. They become fast friends, even though Richard can’t quite mask his romantic interest in Françoise.

Getting to the island turns out to be only half the battle. After long-distance swimming, hiking through dense foliage and evading a group of marijuana growers (who ferociously guard their acreage), the young adventurers find themselves not on a secluded beach, but in an elaborate compound built by a group of self-exiles on permanent vacation from the civilized world. Sal (Tilda Swinton), the group’s strong-willed leader, isn’t too happy to see these uninvited visitors. But the likable trio is soon incorporated into the community.

From the moment Richard arrives in Thailand, sleep-deprived and adrenaline-fueled, director Danny Boyle establishes the feeling of a fever dream, where reality is heightened and distorted to reflect his perspective. Screenwriter John Hodge, who adapted Alex Garland’s 1996 novel, provides Richard with voiceover narration that ideally complements Boyle’s imagery (they previously collaborated on Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and A Life Less Ordinary), and Leonardo DiCaprio exudes the right amount of glib self-absorption to deliver the opening line, "My name is Richard – what else do you need to know?"

As it turns out, quite a lot. Richard goes through a complex metamorphosis in The Beach, but DiCaprio’s usually expressive face remains frustratingly immobile throughout. Here, he is merely callow youth personified, and Richard’s journey into the heart of darkness (Apocalypse Now via Gameboy) is ultimately toothless. Despite guns, sharks and jealous lovers, he never seems to be in any real danger.

Perhaps events would have more weight if the island’s inhabitants were utopians. But with the exception of Sal (a zealot sans a specific ideology), this group has no overriding philosophy other than the pleasure principle. They’ve constructed an ecotourist version of Gilligan’s Island, where they can commune with nature while maintaining all the comforts – and attitudes – of home.

In The Beach, paradise turns out to be a private, members-only resort. The filmmakers are good at portraying the residents’ fears that the outside world will discover their secret island. What they forgot to provide are any compelling reasons why anyone else should care.

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