The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"PARADISE"

Paradise

Diablo Cody is one of the most talented screenwriters working today. After winning an Academy Award for her Juno script, Cody went on to pen Jennifer's Body (a film I maintain is vastly under-appreciated) and the critically-acclaimed but regrettably little-seen Young Adult, as well as create the TV series The United States of Tara. She even did a pass on the screenplay for this year's Evil Dead remake. Cody now steps behind the camera, making her directorial debut with Paradise, a comedy about faith and sin.

Julianne Hough stars as Lamb Mannerhelm, a virginal 21-year old plane crash survivor who suffered severe burns all over her body. Lamb was raised by evangelical parents (Holly Hunter and Nick Offerman) and lives in a small Bible Belt town not unlike the one in Footloose. She is supposed to address her church congregation with an inspirational testimony. Instead, she shocks everyone by declaring that, because of the painful ordeal she went through, she no longer believes in God. Lamb then hops a plane to Las Vegas, with the intention of participating in every sinful activity that has ever been forbidden to her. It doesn't take long to realize that she's out of her element. Luckily, she meets two sympathetic folks who guide her through some of the seedy items on her bucket list. One is a bartender named William (Russell Brand) who may want to bed her, and the other is a failed lounge singer, Loray (Octavia Spencer), with unfulfilled dreams.

The early scenes in Paradise are very funny, as Lamb refutes the religious values everyone around her holds dear, then discovers that her sheltered upbringing has not prepared her for genuine, honest-to-goodness sin. (Her first look at pornography reveals that she's never thought about sex beyond the missionary position.) Many of Lamb's interactions with the more cynical Loray and the jaded William are funny, too. They've experienced things far beyond what Lamb is exposing herself to, which makes their occasional exasperation comical.

As Paradise winds toward its third act, the tone shifts slightly. The laughs turn into revelations, as the newly-corrupted Lamb begins to figure out what she wants from her life. And, to her surprise, what she wants isn't entirely divorced from the ideals she thought she'd left behind. Even if a bit formulaic, there's a touching quality to what the character does. A bathroom encounter with a prostitute is especially poignant, in that it emphasizes how lives can get off track and what it can mean when they start going in the right direction again.

Cody coaxes an unexpectedly good performance from Julianne Hough. From her previous work, I viewed Hough as a pretty but bland screen presence. You can feel her connecting to this material, though, and that really opens her up as an actress. Hough displays a charming vulnerability, while also capturing the inner determination that allows Lamb to continue her journey even when it shocks her. A blessedly toned-down Russell Brand is also effective; we already know he was a bit of a wild man in life, so casting him opposite the squeaky-clean Hough was a masterstroke. The always reliable Octavia Spencer once again proves to be an MVP, portraying Lamb's mirror, a woman who's seen it all and yearns for something simpler.

The lessons learned by the characters in Paradise, although nice, are perhaps a bit obvious, and the film as a whole would have benefited from more scenes with Lamb's parents, who don't get the chance to fulfill what would seem to be an important role in the story. Even with these minor shortcomings, Paradise works as a funny, sweet story about a young woman coming to terms with her personal beliefs. While it finds humor in the subject, the movie is never disrespectful toward religion. If anything, Paradise argues that the values instilled by it are of great value, whether one chooses to remain in the faith or not.

( out of four)


Paradise is rated PG-13 for sexual material, substance abuse, some language and thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 26 minutes.


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