Is it time to throw Leo to the lions? The Beach, in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays a backpacker in Thailand who thinks he has found a map to paradise, is going to piss off a lot of people just because he’s in it. After his unprecedented Titanic splash two years ago, DiCaprio took a vacation from acting, presumably to party, but in the media he was a constant source of backlash-building fascination: all Leo, all the time. The Beach returns DiCaprio, 25, to the screen, not as the talented kid who held his own against Robert De Niro in 1993’s This Boy’s Life but as a Hollywood player with Titanic-size box-office clout.
DiCaprio received $20 million to play Richard in the film version of Alex Garland’s 1996 cult novel about Gen X disillusionment. Wasn’t Richard a Brit in the book? No problem — for Leo, you make him American. Wasn’t it the plan of director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald and screenwriter John Hodge — the British team behind the indie hits Shallow Grave and Trainspotting — to make a low-budget film? No problem — for Leo, you spend $50 million. Wasn’t actor Ewan McGregor — the team player behind Shallow Grave and Trainspotting — the first choice to play Richard? No problem — for Leo, you make adjustments.
And so The Beach comes to the screen freighted with enough Leo baggage to make the movie seem beside the point. It isn’t. The Beach, for all its lapses of judgment and failures of nerve, has its strong points. DiCaprio is one of them. His Richard is a pop-culture junkie, constantly pushing the video games he plays to the next level of difficulty and living his life the same way. Traveling alone in Thailand, he checks into a Bangkok flophouse, where the night sounds include a sexy French couple — Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen) and Etienne (Guillaume Canet) — and a suicidal Scot named Daffy (Robert Carlyle), who rambles about a map to a perfect beach on a hidden island. The next day, Richard finds Daffy’s bloody corpse and the map. Note: Daffy returns with a vengeance in dream sequences, one of which shows him and Richard gunning down tourists. Yikes.
It’s a solid setup, faithful to Garland’s book and alive with visuals that evoke Richard’s Digital Age obsession with Vietnam movies, especially Apocalypse Now (clips are included), with its images of tracer fire and smoking grass through a rifle barrel. Boyle knows that Richard is Game Boy incarnate and directs the film with a video enthusiast’s love for creating obstacles: Can Richard, along with Francoise and Etienne, swim to the island without being torn to pieces by sharks? Can they dodge the armed guards who protect marijuana fields lush enough to pop the peepers of Cheech and Chong? Can they find the small commune of young utopians who have established a stoner’s paradise?
Of course they can, or there’s no movie. The Beach is colorful and exciting, as far as it goes. But Boyle and Hodge pull back on their usual wit and grit. The actors — shirtless whenever possible — look suitably awed by the beach, which cinematographer Darius Khondji (Seven, Evita) lights almost as sensually as he does DiCaprio. Ledoyen has her own share of natural resources, and the eye contact between Francoise and Richard suggests that Etienne will soon be history. In the book, Richard’s lust went unrequited, creating effective sexual tension. On film, he nails her, a decision motivated less by logic than by the divine right of stardom that Titanic conferred on Leo: If there’s a babe, he boffs her.
That goes for another babe as well. The island commune is ruled by Sal, played by the superb British actress Tilda Swinton (Orlando, The War Zone). Sal is fortyish, with her own man, the jealous Bugs (Lars Arentz Hansen), and the tough job of keeping the peace. The settlers in this new Eden get testy when their video games break down due to dead batteries. On an Energizer run to the mainland, Sal brings Richard along as her sex slave. A way to exert her power? Maybe, but the lovemaking — not in the book — plays like another excuse to depant DiCaprio.
These extraneous scenes let the air out of the movie. Just when the suspense should be escalating, The Beach stops to raise familiar moral questions about the sins of man and technology. Things improve when Richard becomes unhinged. Put on sentry duty by Sal, he has violent hallucinations that turn real when the island’s drug commandos mow down a new crop of backpacking intruders. Richard, seeing himself as a pawn in his own video game, runs to save his ass.
DiCaprio delivers strongly, showing Richard as selfish, manipulative, cowardly and dangerously naive — all of which makes the young man’s hard-won maturity in the end more affecting. But Richard is the only flesh-and-blood character in a sea of stereotypes. Why don’t these travel freaks get bored to death with being bogged down on the beach? The movie has no clue. Instead of a breakneck pace, it settles for lofty attitudinizing about the nature of betrayal. Instead of the book’s climactic Lord of the Flies mutilation, it offers a derivative Deer Hunter game of Russian roulette. Don’t blame DiCaprio, who seems eager to explore Richard’s heart of darkness. It’s the movie that wants to protect its investment. The Beach, designed to provoke audiences, stops for too many Hollywood moments to get the job done. Penalty. Game over.