DIRECTED BY Diablo Cody
STARS Julianne Hough, Russell Brand
Julianne Hough, Russell Brand and Octavia Spencer in Paradise. (Photo: RLJ/Image Entertainment)
Where's Jason Reitman when you need him? He seems to possess the magic touch when it comes to directing scripts penned by Diablo Cody, as witnessed by both Juno (for which Cody won a well-deserved Oscar) and the underseen, underrated Young Adult. But under the auspices of Karyn Kusama, Jennifer's Body proved to be an unholy mess, and now, placing herself in the director's chair for her debut in that capacity, Cody fails on two fronts with Paradise.
Julianne Hough, about as bland here as in Rock of Ages, stars as Lamb Mannerheim, a devout Christian who has recently survived a plane crash. With burns all over most of her body (but, conveniently, not her face, as Cody doesn't want to make viewers uncomfortable), the home-schooled and extremely sheltered Lamb stands at the podium of her Montana church and declares to the stunned congregation that she no longer believes in God, drawing audible gasps when she follows that tidbit with the added info that "in the next election, I might even vote Democrat!" Leaving her flabbergasted parents (Holly Hunter and Nick Offerman) behind, she takes off for Las Vegas, where she hopes to partake in all manner of sin. But once she arrives in the big, bad city, she goes from being a potential Lamb for the slaughter to a Lamb that's constantly shepherded (Cody's script ain't exactly subtle), as she becomes friends with William (Russell Brand) and Loray (Octavia Spencer), industry-service workers who apparently have nothing better to do than tend to this lost Lamb at every turn.
All of Cody's previous pictures have exhibited bite, but Paradise is a toothless endeavor, as soft in its head as it is in its heart. She clearly has affection for her characters, despite the fact that they're hardly believable: Lamb is a Red State caricature, while William and Loray act more like strangers who just met rather than the "family" they're supposed to represent to each other. But Cody rarely puts this trio through any interesting paces, and there's ultimately more danger prevalent on Sesame Street than in the Las Vegas presented here. Her engaging way with words has also failed her, with a couple of the exchanges — Loray explaining how she's not a Magical Negro like the type seen in The Green Mile and Ghost; the bathroom chat between Lamb and a weary prostitute (Kathleen Rose Perkins) — proving particularly embarrassing.
It's clear that Lamb is headed for a major revelation that will inform the direction of her life moving forward, but everything during the film's home stretch is handled so timidly and haphazardly that the catharsis comes and goes with all the weight of a dandelion. Paradise may be a movie paved with good intentions, but between its meandering nature, surface exploration of religion and roster of forgettable characters, it's more like motion-picture perdition.