Thailand is the real star of `Beach'

February 11, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Some jottings from a critic's notebook regarding "The Beach": "It's `Lord of the Flies' meets `The Love Boat!' " ... "It's `Lord of the Flies' meets `The Farm!' " ... "It's `Lord of the Flies' meets a Phish concert!"

"The Beach" is all of that and not much more, but filmgoers who crave escapist adventure in exotic climes can do worse. Adapted from Alex Garland's popular first novel by ultra-hip director Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting," "Shallow Grave"), "The Beach" is already famous for starring a post-"Titanic" Leonardo DiCaprio. He's OK, but the real show here is Thailand, which Boyle has filmed for maximum atmosphere, whether it's the frenetic streets of Bangkok or the languid jungles and velvet beaches of its islands. ("The Beach" has been splendidly photographed by Darius Khondji.)

DiCaprio plays Richard, a young American tourist who comes to Thailand, like so many other twenty-something vagabonds, for a taste of primitive chic before settling into some dot-com company future. After making the acquaintance of a mysterious drug addict named Daffy (Robert Carlyle), Richard acquires a hand-drawn map to an island reputed to have at its center the world's most perfect beach -- a ribbon of soft white sand surrounding a turquoise tidal pool. Richard convinces an attractive French couple (Virginie Ledoyen and Guillaume Canet) to accompany him on a search for the island, which turns out to be inhabited by what look like refugees from the last Grateful Dead concert.

Richard and his friends settle into a blissfully marginal existence of pot smoking, fishing and flirtation but soon the fragile ecology of the Beach is threatened by that old spoil sport, Human Nature. With more than a nod to "Apocalypse Now" (which shows up here for a cameo appearance), "The Beach" sends Richard on a trippy journey toward feral existentialism, the end of which lies in a graphic indictment of guru culture.

"The Beach" could easily be a smart exploration of dislocation, identity and social disintegration, but those are left on the cutting room floor in favor of a tepid love story and its attendant melodrama. Fans of Garland's book (which left the relationship unresolved) will no doubt bemoan the shift in emphasis, as should filmgoers.

DiCaprio's performance is thin, especially when he's up against heavweights like Carlyle and Tilda Swinton, who plays the commune's leader with just the right amount of idealism and sangfroid. But he manages to hold his own in a movie for which appearance trumps content every time.

Terrific looking in the extreme, "The Beach" is the movie equivalent of vacation reading: no more demanding -- and no less satisfying -- than a sandy paperback left on a damp towel.

`The Beach'

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio

Directed by Danny Boyle

Rated R (violence, some strong sexuality, language and drug content)

Running time 112 minutes

Released by 20th Century Fox

Sun score **

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