- The Washington Times - Friday, February 11, 2000

"The Beach" contrives to re-sink Leonardo DiCaprio in his first full-blown starring role since "Titanic." He plays an unwary young traveler to Thailand who swims to an ominous island "paradise," a tainted Shangri-La that turns out to be a haven for dope farming and smuggling peopled by a screwball colony of international dropouts.

"The Beach" builds up to letdowns of skittish magnitude. The self-defeating effect of this method can't be exactly what director Danny Boyle had in mind.

His intentions may be reflected in the muttering of Robert Carlyle as a crazed Scot called Daffy. An early suicide, Daffy is encountered briefly by Mr. DiCaprio as a foolhardy young American traveler called Richard. Their paths cross while they share adjacent rooms in a shabby hostel in Bangkok.

"Too much input, too much sensation," Daffy babbles, alluding to this secret island and sharing a joint with his neighbor. Richard seeks out this tropical, booby-trapped Shangri-La after the stranger entrusts him with a memento of their fateful chat, a hand-drawn map.

Mr. Boyle, who made his big splash with Mr. Carlyle as one of the strung-out Edinburgh, Scotland, punks of "Trainspotting," may have a chronic weakness for material that pitches too much input, too much sensation.

Alternating utopian wooziness with halfhearted intimations of dread, he sensationalizes much of the clarity out of the source material, an intriguing novel by a young British author, Alex Garland. Exploitably flashy and scenic in certain respects, "The Beach" nevertheless is a vicarious bad trip of a blundering and equivocal kind.

Richard, whose background remains hazy and whose character fails to ripen despite ostensibly perilous and compromising circumstances, acquires two companions: a French couple named Etienne and Francoise (Guilaume Canet and Virginie Ledoyen, a virtuoso sensation in the 1995 French feature "A Single Girl"). Guests at the same hostel, they also are looking for sights and experiences off the beaten tourist track. The final leg of their expedition to Daffy's island involves swimming a couple of miles across open seas, the most impressive feat of youthful overconfidence in the story.

The destination turns out to resemble a poor man's "Planet of the Apes" crossed with a poor man's "Island of Dr. Moreau." Far from deserted, the island reveals an abundance of marijuana plants under cultivation. Richard, Etienne and Francoise evade the armed patrols guarding this illicit crop and discover the colony Daffy evidently fled. These nonnative inhabitants are largely European. A village has been established near a majestic lagoon, which seems to supply adequate seafood.

Mr. Boyle has a difficult time finding dreadful undercurrents in this sun-baked hideaway. A couple of shark threats arise in sea and lagoon, but they don't impact on the principal characters in effective ways. As narrator, Richard hints that "desire" will be his downfall, but there are no desire-intensive repercussions when Francoise shifts her affections from Etienne to Richard or when the boss lady of the colony, Tilda Swinton's Sal, decides to sample Richard as a consort.

Ultimately, Richard is blamed for a crisis that brings four more strangers to the island. One gets the allegorical drift: Westerners should not presume to occupy or subdivide seemingly idyllic real estate in the Third World. But one has no emotional stake in this overprivileged social experiment, anyway.

* 1/2

TITLE: "The Beach"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, graphic violence, nudity, simulated drug use and simulated intercourse)

CREDITS: Directed by Danny Boyle

RUNNING TIME: About 115 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS



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