It has become trendy of late for film critics to note that one member of an ensemble “acts like he’s in another movie”—which is code for directorial incompetence or narrative incoherence, but is rarely an actual casting faux pas. Despite being both incompetent and incoherent, The Beach exhibits a casting error of monumental proportion—only Leonardo DiCaprio understands what kind of movie he’s in. No one else has any idea what the point or tone ought to be—not the rest of the cast, not the editor, and certainly not the golden trio of director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald, and screenwriter John Hodge, always referred to as the “Trainspotting team”—as if A Life Less Ordinary had never happened. (Who says one’s Hollywood cred is only as strong as one’s latest box office receipts?)
Adapted from Alex Garland’s best-selling novel, The Beach is supposedly a surreal parable about Western culture’s urge to cheapen and despoil all that is good and natural—an Edenic fable about eco-panic and consumerist ruin. In the butter fingers of Hodge and Boyle, however, the story becomes an unwieldy totem pole of chunklike ideas, none of them compatible: part hippie beach fantasy, part Heart of Darkness descent into jungle heck, part penny-ante social metaphor (call it Lord of the Fleas), part utopian coming-of-age story, in that order. Everyone activates beatific smiles, crazed roving eyeballs, or stoned torpor as required, while DiCaprio rips into each scene like a terrier with a yummy pant leg. Somebody—either the entire cast, crew, and production company or Leo himself—has gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick.
I would like to have seen the film DiCaprio thinks he’s in—my best guess is that he read the script and took the stupid parts for a joke and the incoherent ones for a comment on the Western character’s dearth of useful responses to environmental challenge. While the script soberly insists that his character, an American tourist named Richard on the bum in Thailand, is a naive player whose desires wreck paradise’s communal peace, DiCaprio’s Richard evinces a repellent, blind selfishness as well as shades of self-doubt. The center of the film, Richard is the ugly American, but Boyle cannot resist trying to free Leo of his character’s moral responsibilities any more than he could resist casting the Twenty-Million-Dollar Man in the first place. When your star is two-fifths of your total budget, he’d better be playing the good guy.
Richard first washes up in a crummy tourist hotel where he encounters a number of interesting neighbors—a sexy French girl named Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen) and her arrogant boyfriend, Etienne (Guillaume Canet), on one side; an emaciated madman (Robert Carlyle) in shredded clothes on the other. The laughing loony calls himself Daffy and, after passing Richard some weed through the transom, unspools a hard-to-believe tale of the secret, pristine beach, located on a nearby island, that has been both his paradise and his downfall. Even infrequent moviegoers will anticipate Daffy’s horrible death by self-inflicted razor slashes and the hand-drawn map Richard finds affixed to his own door.
For a forbidden island, it doesn’t seem hard to get to. Richard has a couple of short conversations with the French couple by way of lusting after Francoise, and they all decide to head out together. Richard also leaves a copy of the map in the hands of two moronic stoners, offering a lousy explanation in voice-over—something about wanting to take a bit of home wherever he goes, which we understand to mean destruction and ignorance long before Richard does. Richard, Francoise, and Etienne get on a boat or two, undertake a short swim, skulk through lush marijuana fields to evade the gun-toting guards, and in the expensive part of the film—I mean, in the journey—leap over a 120-foot waterfall. They are promptly greeted by Keatie, an emissary from the beach community, who seems to figure that anyone who can make it this far deserves to join the secret society.
Before The Beach decides what it’s going to do with this setup, it’s fine, if unfocused—the real action doesn’t begin until we see the beach and its proprietors. Unfortunately, neither are worth taking seriously. The beach looks like something from AsiaDisney, with huge, waxy, overbright flowers blooming 10 feet from the shore and a hut commune with all prim cons. Presided over by Sal (Tilda Swinton), a British matriarch with a boyfriend called Bugs (might this be a link to the late Daffy? actually, no), the beach folk are annoying hippies from all over the Western hemisphere who smoke pot every living second and ask for numerous frivolities whenever someone has to make a rice run into the big city.
Richard’s uninvited presence brings doom to the happy isle, but not, as Boyle sees it, because the happy hand-shimmiers (they do this instead of clapping) deserve doom. Hodge’s screenplay never hints that the seeds of strife may have been planted before Richard’s arrival—in six years, they have never faced sexual covetousness (Richard steals Francoise from Etienne), physical danger (some fishermen run into a shark “summoned” by Richard’s divisive spirit), or interior division (Bugs and Richard, who despise each other, jockey for power). The beach-dwellers are too realistically presented for their idyllic state to ring true, and their harmony with each other contrasts with the reflexive greed and vanity of their shopping lists—Boyle shoots the scene of an endless line of them explaining to Richard just what brand of makeup remover or tinned beef curry they need as inconsequential farce.
Without any basis, Richard the American Seeker becomes the symbol of destruction and hubris. While Sal is photographed robed in gold and lying on her side like a Balinese statuette, Richard exults at his first fish kill, bellowing, godlike, “And I say unto you, ‘I shall provide!’” Etienne confronts Richard about his schtupping Francoise while the two cut down birds of paradise with machetes. DiCaprio heaves the entire—and considerable—weight of his talent against the lacunae and missteps of the script, but it is not enough. When Richard kills a shark, he tells the assembled gathering the tale with the dramatic pauses and near-fictional highlights of a sailor’s yarn, because he’s young and stupid and relieved and prideful and doesn’t know any other way to tell this story; interfering with nature is something he’s only read about. How to interpret such interference is beyond his ken. But the hippies with their platefuls of shark stare in openmouthed wonder, and so does Boyle—does anyone else think this speech is supposed to be funny?
Since modern fiction holds that Man cannot go into the jungle without losing his faculties to the fecund tendrils of overpowering Nature, Richard is assigned guard duty when the idiot stoners and their German girlfriends stumble onto the island. He goes mad, of course, in a series of hilarious scenes, which should indicate the shallowness of his profound responses to anything—even madness. He envisions himself as the hero of a video game; as a modern-day Kurtz, poisoned by the perfumed air; as the would-be victim in the Most Dangerous Game, making tiger traps in the jungle floor. When Richard steals into the hut one night and takes a scarf from a sleeping inhabitant to wear around his head, DiCaprio employs the utmost mincing stealth and the very least amount of imagination. But we are to believe that he really has gone crazy, and that, although he has been ordered to keep watch, the beachies think he’s snubbing them—?!?—and that he can snap out of his cracked mental state just as easily as he slipped into it. None of the film’s degenerative midsection makes any sense unless Richard is an icon of American opacity, a selfish monster who scares himself off the island, not a trembling naif who’s run off it by stoned 19-year-old Swedes.
Eventually, he does escape the cultlike grip of the commune, whereupon The Beach announces it’s been a that-magical-summer-I-really-grew-up movie—a jaw-dropping conclusion that virtually obviates everything that came before. Not that it matters, seeing as the filmmakers are so un-self-aware about their vision and motives that the film could decide it’s a zany backstage musical and make as much sense. By the time Richard, still a seeker, but wiser and cooler, wistfully beams at the memory of his happiness, even Leo’s given up treating the thing with any gravity. CP