Sex, and more, on ‘The Beach’

Consumer culture can do some pretty horrible things to malleable people, like, for example, convince them to hop a train to Hollywood and direct big-budget extravaganzas about how consumer culture is destroying us all. People’s Exhibit #1: The Beach, a wrongheaded, self-parodic film that unwittingly acts as a weird paean to the Internet cafes and sidewalk marketplaces that its protagonist, Richard, calls “cancers,” pure and simple.

The film’s thesis, if it can be referred to as such, is so commonplace in Hollywood these days that it’s almost aphoristic: commodity-based capitalism has so stifled us that, when we get exposed to anything genuinely primal and violent, weird stuff happens. It’s Fight Club meets Lord of the Flies – the natural world as visceral wake-up call – and it adds approximately nothing to the already dubious legacies of its two main sources.

Of course, The Beach has one thing neither of its clear inspirations had: Leonardo DiCaprio. The unwilling teen heartthrob plays Richard, an American postgrad who heads off to Thailand in search of adventure and exoticism. A couple of nights into it, he’s already met, in adjacent rooms at a grimy hostel, Daffy (a nearly unintelligible Robert Carlyle), a suicidal wacko who gives him a map to what he claims is an idyllic island beach, and a French couple with whom he will soon journey to the alleged Valhalla.

There’s a considerable amount of setup, most of it pointless – of course the island exists and of course they’ll make it there; Beckett this ain’t – except for the emergence of travel partner Françoise as Richard’s love interest. Richard, Françoise and her lover Etienne (Guillaume Canet) all make it to the fabled beach, and it’s everything they could possibly imagine: a softly lit vista with appropriately beatific Moby soundtracking.

Thus far, the movie plays as a none too advanced exercise in image manipulation and juxtaposition. There’s a fussy, hyperactive mainland, a glorified version of the video games Richard loves, and a calm, Elysian island: picturesque, to be sure, but pretty simpleminded in its dichotomy. But even more striking is The Beach’s handling of the DiCaprio quandary. From one of the film’s first scenes – our boy Leo drinking snake blood to prove his masculinity – on through his discovery of the island paradise, there’s a frankly perverse lionization at work. Richard is a loud, cocksure loser, but the film feels compelled to mythologize him through sympathetic camerawork, lengthy topless shots and various and sundry other forms of gooey obsession.

All of which becomes fatal when the plot tries to move into overdrive. The island beach, you see, comes with a secretive, Utopian community ruled by Sal (Tilda Swinson), a Robert Owen for the age of postmodernity. Françoise wants Leo; Françoise has Leo; Sal wants Leo, Sal has Leo; Leo doesn’t have a damn clue what he wants.

But nature wants him too, and when Sal banishes him from the community to the unforgiving forest, nature has him. And so the uglification of Leonardo DiCaprio reaches hilarious lows, when Richard – still shirtless – bops about in a guttural frenzy, bizarrely hallucinating about Daffy, hissing like a snake and breathing awfully heavy. Meanwhile, the community itself is conveniently proving to be, Etienne excepted, a bunch of churlish, cowardly bastards who can’t face up to anything that gets in the way of their cricket, volleyball and ignorant bliss. Of course, the freakishly primal and the wanly escapist have to confront each other, and it can’t be pleasant.

But, then again, neither is the movie, whose trite, ham-fisted plot introduces elements (Richard and Sal’s one-night stand) and characters (Sal’s jealous boyfriend Bugs) without pausing to wonder if they make a whit of sense. Director Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting was effectively frenetic overkill, but he loses all control of The Beach early on, resorting to goofball visual effects (for a while, we see Richard’s misadventures in the forest as a third-person video game) and cheap shock tactics (Richard eating a worm in extreme close up: take that, Titanic fans!). Boyle’s cinematography, by turns hopelessly dank and almost baroque in its softness, couples with the plot’s utter lack of economy to make the film dreary, scattershot and fatuous.

DiCaprio spends most of his time in the film vamping: early on he’s a faux badass, later he’s supposed to be transformed, but by that point it’s a hard sell and he can’t make it. None of the other actors are especially distinguished, not because of personal failings but because the film spends so much time trying to make Richard seem magnetic that it all but ignores everything on the periphery. That said, Swinson is at times good and severe, and Carlyle deserves some kind of special mention for sheer indecipherability.

But by the end of The Beach, when a frankly offensive dénouement tries to wrap weeks to months of hell up in a glossy package, the actors and direction are far from the point. For about 95 percent of its tedious run, The Beach is a horribly flawed but ambitious project; in its almost gruesomely pat finale, the film becomes a mealy-mouthed position paper that celebrates consumer culture and suggests that anything else is foolish exemption. It’s OK, the film suggests; the whole thing was just a pleasant vacation. Now go back to writing cheap, smug screenplays, and don’t forget the product placement.

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