This Better Life, by Rita Cannon
I understand why many people find Diablo Cody’s work irritating. The rapid-fire, hyper-quirky, reference-saturated dialogue she’s known for can get tiring. Her characters sometimes sound a little too similar to each other. And no, I can’t really account for any of what happened in Jennifer’s Body. But I’ll gladly take a strong, distinctive voice – even it’s occasionally grating – over one that’s merely bland, and if there’s one thing you can say about Cody, it’s that she’s never bland. I was really looking forward to Paradise, her directorial debut, because I wanted to know what kind of story was so important to her that she’d keep it completely in her own hands rather than sharing control with a director. I was also intrigued by what I knew about the plot – a young Christian woman loses her faith after suffering through a terrible accident – because my favorite of Cody’s scripts is the bracingly pessimistic Young Adult, and I was excited to see her continue in the direction of darkly comedic character studies. As it turns out, Paradise is a totally new direction for Cody, and not in a good way. For the first time ever, Diablo Cody has turned out something completely bland. It’s actually shockingly bland, if such a thing is possible.
Lamb Mannerheim (played by Dancing With The Stars alumnus turned actress Julianne Hough) grew up in a small conservative Christian community of Blakesley, Montana, and never questioned her town’s teachings until she was severely burned in a plane crash. That violent tragedy and her long, painful recovery have shattered her faith, and the film opens with Lamb informing her congregation that she no longer believes in God or religion, and will soon be leaving for Las Vegas in order to make up for lost time and experience as much sin as possible.
It’s a dynamic premise, but Cody’s choices, both as a writer and a director, constantly undermine any real emotions that might spring from it. Lamb is supposed to be full of disappointment, anger, and pain, but engagement with those feelings gets swept aside in favor of cheap laughs at the expense of her conservative family (her mom calls glitter “lucifer dust”). Her life before the crash is presented as a cartoon. The crash itself, as well as its aftermath, are similarly glossed over. There’s some lip service paid to the fact that she went through a lot of physical and emotional pain, but she now seems only mildly inconvenienced by her injuries, and nothing in Hough’s performance indicates any feelings stronger than annoyance at her community’s incessant fawning. Cody frequently writes snarky, eye-rolling heroines, but unlike Ellen Page in Juno or Charlize Theron in Young Adult, there’s no current of pain or fear running beneath the sarcastic quips. Hough is thoroughly likable, and even surprisingly funny at some points, but she’s not up to the task of investing Lamb with any more nuance than what’s on the page, and what’s on the page is disappointingly glib.
Things pick up when she arrives in Vegas, mostly thanks to Octavia Spencer and Russell Brand as jaded nightclub employees who take Lamb under their wings. Unlike the the denizens of Blakesley, these two actually feel like real people. They have ambitions, regrets, and flaws, all of which come into play in their reactions to Lamb. These three actors have a weirdly compelling chemistry that’s a joy to watch, even when the plot around them continues to falter. Lamb arrives in Vegas with a list of sins to accomplish, but when she gets around to them, it’s usually anticlimactic. She drinks booze for the first time, but doesn’t really like it. She gambles, dances, and gets a tattoo, but those things are also underwhelming. Nothing that happens to Lamb has any real effect on her, and when something does, it rings false – like when she and her new friends have an obligatory falling out over some kind of trumped up conflict that I can’t even remember.
Paradise is meant to be a coming-of-age film in which our young heroine Learns About Life, but if feels like Cody never quite decided on what she wanted Lamb to learn. It’s so vague and unfocused that it feels like a first draft. Most disappointing of all, it takes a premise that’s full of juicy, complex themes – religion, morality, fate, the purpose of suffering – and waters it down until the movie’s strongest message is that it’s nice to help other people. Did Lamb really have to go on a big journey to learn that? They never covered that in church? Paradise claims to be the story of young woman’s crisis of faith and subsequent rebirth, but in execution, it feels more like a story about someone who was in a bad mood for a while but eventually got over it.