30 September 2000 | Buddy-51
not very gritty story of survival
Is this merely `Survivor' without the million-dollar payoff? Or is it a modern vision of James Hilton's most famous novel? For those too young to have any memories of `Lost Horizon,' `The Beach' may seem like a wildly new and original work. And, as this is, essentially, a narcissistic youth fantasy starring teen-idol Leonardo Di Caprio, chances are that most of the film's audience will indeed be hovering somewhere near the puberty mark. Since the cast of characters is so youthful to begin with, the film is able to dispense with or, at the most, treat obliquely one of the major themes that runs through `Lost Horizon,' that of the universal lure of Eternal Youth.
Di Caprio stars as Richard, a young man so bored with the mundane rituals of modern civilized life that he journeys alone to Bangkok to partake of the exotic experiences a more primitive life has to offer. While there, he encounters a seeming madman who, right before his suicide, draws a map for Richard revealing the whereabouts of a small tropical island, guaranteed to be a Shangri-la for any person clever and daring enough to get there. Recruiting two of his hotel neighbors a young French couple to accompany him, Richard sets out to find his own private place in the sun. But life is never quite that simple and the three soon discover that the island is already inhabited by other jaded tourists who have set up a carefree, thriving community far away from both the amenities and problems of the modern world.
This concept of discovering a secret, pristine and uncorrupted paradise has a timeless appeal and pull. And, as long as `The Beach' hews closely to this theme, it remains a reasonably interesting film, for who cannot identify at least partially with the lure of this idea? The tricky part for the filmmakers tackling this theme is to make this unlikely situation seem real and believable. Unfortunately, in the case of `The Beach,' the people who comprise this out-of-the-way community seem, for the most part, way too agreeable and cooperative. This is like a Club Med resort without the room service. Survival here doesn't seem like much of a struggle and there rarely ever seems to be much in the way of intense disagreements and arguments amongst the group's members. We wonder, for instance, why, without monetary compensation or incentives of any kind for that matter, one man does all the cooking while another man does all the building. As far as we can tell, they do virtually all the work on the island while the others frolic on the beach playing volleyball all day. `Lost Horizon' was a certified fantasy `The Beach' aspires to realism yet it needs a bit more grit to really achieve the truth it is after. Yes, grim reality does occasionally poke its ugly head into this insulated world from time to time in the form of man-eating sharks and gun-toting pot harvesters - but the characters themselves lack psychological depth and clarity. With rare exceptions, the people on the island seem to exist in a state of unlikely harmony, exhibiting little or none of the human conflict, personal jealousy or power politics one would reasonably expect to find in such a situation. Then when, late in the game, the film develops grand illusions of becoming a meaningful and grim look into the dark heart of madness, `The Beach' becomes both pretentious and laughable. This is particularly the case because Richard seems to drift in and out of madness with a dexterity that would leave Sigmund Freud himself speechless and dumbfounded.
`The Beach' may well appeal to all those viewers who found the phony, pseudo-adventure theatrics of `Survivor' realistic and compelling. Indeed, the best part of the film is the ending when all these pathetic, craven softies from civilization, who fancy themselves rugged individualists, get their final comeuppance. Those of us who have long ago freely capitulated to the lure of all our assorted modern amenities happily get the last laugh.