`Without a Paddle': Stooges in the sticks

August 20, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Without a Paddle is pretty much without appeal. It's a comedy about three buds who decide to do one last really stupid thing before surrendering to adulthood. They head out on a long camping trip in rough backwoods country, then spend the rest of the film getting each other out of the really fine mess they find themselves in.

The premise is not without possibilities - think Laurel and Hardy starring in Deliverance for an idea of what the filmmakers were going for - but it's executed with little imagination and even less wit.

Brought together by the death of their mutual friend Billy, longtime pals Jerry (Matthew Lillard), Dan (Seth Green) and Tom (Dax Shepard) use the occasion to regress back to their childhood, at least for an afternoon. But when a visit to their old treehouse (still solid after all these years - such construction!) reveals the plan Billy had for them all, the lure of arrested adolescence proves too much.

As youngsters, the gang of four had been obsessed with the legend of D.B. Cooper, the real-life daredevil-thief-skyjacker who disappeared after parachuting out of a plane with thousands of dollars in stolen money. The legend has it that D.B. was killed, and the money is still out there.

Alone among them, it seems, Billy had kept the obsession alive, using physics, mathematics, meteorology and a few hunches to figure out where D.B. landed, and where the rumored treasure might still be. Billy left behind a map in the treehouse, the guys find it, and off they go, for one last adventure. For Billy.

Ah, but these aren't the same three kids who used to make like musketeers back in the day. Dan is a successful doctor encumbered by all sorts of pathological fears, Matthew is a successful business executive with commitment issues (and a beautiful girlfriend, of course) and Tom is a liar, loafer and ne'er-do-well who's spent some time in the state pen (he's a jerk, and proud of it).

Wanna bet these guys will resolve a whole bunch of their issues before the trip is up? Wanna bet that each one will be afforded a big speech in which he declaims on both the value of friendship and the need to assume responsibility for one's life? Wanna bet they'll find that old friendships never die?

Along the way, of course, there are many laughs to be had, like the bit about the bear who mistakes Dan for one of her cubs, or the half-naked tree-huggers (Rachel Blanchard and Christina Moore) who live high up in a redwood and offer a handy excuse for the boys to strip down to their underwear, or the crazed mountain guy (Burt Reynolds) who's a lot wiser than one would think.

Actually, the team that's fun to watch in the movie isn't Dan, Tom and Jerry, but rather a pair of backwoods marijuana growers played by Abraham Benrubi and Ethan Suplee; at least they're funny. And their efforts to exact revenge after the boys inadvertently cause their reefer crop to burn down give the movie some momentum that doesn't depend on soulful one-on-one-on-ones between the three principals.

The screenplay, which somehow required five writers, doesn't handle heartfelt conversations and revelatory insights among friends very well; every once in a while, the movie lurches to a halt while one of the three adventurers tells the other two how messed up his life really is.

Lillard, Green and Shepard do the best they can, giving Without a Paddle more effort than it deserves. Even in a world where stupidity mixed with cliche is all too often mistaken for humor, this movie barely meets expectations.

Without a Paddle

Starring Seth Green, Matthew Lillard, Dax Shepard

Directed by Steven Brill

Rated PG-13 (drug content, sexual material, language, crude humor and some violence)

Released by Paramount Pictures

Time 99 minutes

Sun Score **

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