Ticket to Paradise
Ticket to Paradise, starring Julia Roberts and George Clooney; courtesy of Universal Pictures

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Ol Parker is known for bubbly, ebullient romantic comedies. His films The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again were unabashedly cheesy—the kind of films that do not set box office records and become major hits anyway. In many ways, his latest, Ticket to Paradise, continues that tradition. George Clooney and Julia Roberts star in it, rehashing the chemistry that helped make the Ocean’s 11 series so successful. More importantly, the film is set in Bali, serving as a travelogue for anyone wealthy enough to vacation in the South Pacific. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Trouble arises in paradise, however, because Parker, along with his co-screenwriter Daniel Pipski, have little understanding of what makes Clooney and Roberts so charming in the first place.

The megastars play David and Georgia, a divorced couple who cannot stand each other. Over lunch, Georgia observes she prefers to stay in a different time zone than her ex-husband. But their daughter Lily (Kaitlyn Dever) is graduating from college in Chicago, forcing the pretense of civility. These early scenes are where Ticket to Paradise starts to fumble. David and Georgia are not prickly; in fact, they are kind of mean, prone to one-liners that contain more bile than wit. A sharper screenplay, one where they trade barbs with a kind of begrudging respect, would have made their relationship more plausible. Still, this is the kind of movie where the story is on autopilot, letting the admittedly stunning vistas smooth things over. Lily’s postgraduate vacation to Bali leads to a “surprise”: She decides to stay there because she’s fallen in love with a seaweed farmer, Gede (Maxime Bouttier). David and Georgia follow Lily to Bali, where they plan to sabotage the wedding under the guise of supporting their daughter.

A dearth of chemistry between the leads means that we start to see additional cracks. Other than a vague desire for Lily to pursue her career, David and Georgia can barely articulate why they disapprove of her choices (there is an unintentional running gag about how it is unclear whether Lily finished undergrad or law school). Other than Lily’s parents and friend Wren (Billie Lourd), she seemingly has no ties to the United States, to the point that the wedding is full of Balinese cultural traditions and none of her own. In fact, Gede’s family gets the “magic” treatment, a kind of folksy deference that exists only in romcom plots to show just how awful the Americans actually are. The characters in Crazy Rich Asians are a direct critique of this trope, suggesting that Parker and Pipski would rather regress their chosen genre than advance it.

In spite of an uneven first half, Ticket to Paradise lumbers toward modest charms once David and Georgia reconnect. Clooney’s rakish charm can add subtext to any clunky line, while Roberts’ trademark laugh helps assure the audience that everyone is having a good time. This is important to the comic set-pieces, such as a beer pong game that goes on too long, and a day trip that ends with the four leads spending the night away from their posh hotel. There are no insights here, exactly, just the kind of story beats that lead us toward an inevitable conclusion.

Clooney and Roberts are having fun with characters who are impulsive and scheming, yet the younger characters are surprisingly straitlaced. Dever is a terrific actor, and yet here she comes off a humorless scold, while Bouttier does not fare much better. And when the parents promise to end their sabotage campaign, there is little truth to the film’s Hallmark-ready observations about parenthood. That would require insight about human behavior that eludes Parker and his collaborators.

Like Parker’s other films, Ticket to Paradise’s destiny likely involves basic cable. It’s the kind of film you awkwardly watch with distant relatives over the holidays because it seems the least offensive of the available offerings. There are better rom-coms that could fulfill that need, and for a while, David and Georgia’s relationship is such a mystery that your one relative who won’t shut up will find themselves asking questions about the premise, the characters, and what Clooney’s wife is up to nowadays. This time, maybe you have some sympathy for that one cousin or aunt. Sure, they should put a sock in it, but intentionally or not, they’ve zeroed in on problems that another several rounds of script revisions could have easily overcome.

Ticket to Paradise plays in theaters everywhere starting October 21.