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The Beach

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Beach

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tilda Swinton
Director: Danny Boyle
Rated: R
RunTime: 118 Minutes
Release Date: February 2000
Genres: Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Guillaume Canet, Staffan Kihlbom, Virginie Ledoyen, Magnus Lindgren, Victoria Smurfit, Robert Carlyle

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

There's a difference between touring and a traveling, just as there is a distinction between movie reviewing and film criticism. One is superficial, the other penetrating. One caters to the need for pure entertainment, the other feeds the hunger for insights. A sightseer is safely encapsulated in his tour bus, knowing that he has reservations in a good hotel on the next stop of his journey and that he can complain and perhaps get a partial refund if anything goes wrong. The traveler shucks this very human desire for security in return for a chance more deeply to experience new things, emotionally as well as intellectually. Predictability for the traveler is immaterial, for the tourist, indispensable. In Alex Garland's eerie novel which has been adapted for the screen by Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting"), Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a backpacker with a vengeance. Most Lonely Planet types travel in groups, stick together in youth hostels, maybe smoke some dope, and aside from the poverty of their surrounding are not that much different from tourists. Richard by contrast has made the trip from America alone (there's a hint that his girl friend had just dumped him and he's out to leave the past behind), deplanes in Bangkok where he hasn't the foggiest notion what he will do next, and by both fortuitous and devastating serendipity meets up with crazy Scot Daffy (Robert Carlyle) who has taken the room next to his.

Gaining possession of a secret map from the appropriately named Daffy, Richard shares the information with some pals he meets in the city and then goes off with a sexy French couple, Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen) and Etienne (Guillaume Canet) to a remote island which you can be sure was never seen by Aunt Betsy and Uncle Mort on their 30th anniversary trip to the Far East. There they discover a utopian community of fellow pleasure-seekers, no one over the age of 35, led by queen bee Sal (Tilda Swinton)--who is adamant about keeping the hideaway a secret from the rest of the world. This island Shangri-La is shared in much the way that Haitians and Dominicans divide Hispaniola, except that the fellows on the nether side of the island are gun-toting marijuana farmers who strangely enough have allowed the commune to remain for years. Considering the attachment that those surly local thugs have for their hidden expanse, the most unbelievable aspect of the film is their willingness to live and let live--provided that no additional Westerners appear. The brutality begins when a group of idiotic youth do indeed approach the hideaway, though throughout Richard's stay, events conspire to threaten the viability of the quixotic community.

John Hodge's screenplay advances a sexual relationship that does not exist in the book and also converts the principal character into an American rather than a Brit. Director Boyle moves Hodge's plot along smoothly from the pristine clear waters of the beachfront vistas to the murky seas that snare a group of pleasure-seeking youth. The consensus of critics is that the film is sharp enough during the initial half, as Richard and his new pals find more pleasure in their trip than any tourists with an extravagant Cook's booking possibly could. They get to jump into the turquoise waters of exotic Thailand from a cliff higher than Acapulco's La Quebrada. Richard has the time of his life catching fish as our prehistoric ancestors did and later in battling a shark to the death. He steals away the lovely Francoise from a young man who shares her culture and language, and jaunts through episodes experienced by fellows in other movies from "The Blue Lagoon" to "Heart of Darkness." Before some stoners approach this paradise upsetting the balance of power between the romantics of various cultures and the native drug growers, the only problems seem to be what to do with a guy who has been mauled by a shark (Sal rules that he cannot be taken to the mainland lest the secret leak out) and how to deal with the jealousies that inevitably arise in a closed community where everyone knows his neighbor's every move.

While Darius Khondji's lens takes in the taut DiCaprio body and maturing face, "The Beach" does not unnecessarily exploit the unique looks that make the superstar the heartthrob of teenaged girls from Passaic to Port Moresby. DiCaprio holds his own with a fine performance, even establishing a modicum of chemistry with the largely wasted Ledoyen. A surreal portion of the film toward the conclusion featuring Leo as himself part of a hair-raising video game recalls the fun of Tom Tykwer's "Run Lola Run" while giving us in the audience a feeling of relief when we think, "Maybe we did the right thing after all taking that American Express tour of Paris."

The film does give us insight into why so many of these closely-knit communities ultimately fail: why the Israeli kibbutz movement attracts only two percent of the population of that country, why the Oneida Community in the United States went belly-up, how the many communes founded during the fun days of the late sixties and early seventies no longer exist. We can indeed go home again, and in fact our true identities may be more in line with sitting at a computer keyboard sipping latte than with experiencing our "natural selves" in a shaggy, Club-Med style Garden of Eden. "The Beach" never really strays from the commercial track while exploring its inhabitants' hopes and fears, but considering that we in the audience can take it in without getting sand on overheated feet makes the experience a worthy one indeed.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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