Diablo Cody isn’t for everyone. She has a voice of her own, and because of that, her films can be polarizing. Cody is a writer with plenty of strengths, and her last film, Young Adult, showed them off to their fullest. That’s her most honest, funny, and often brutal work to date. However, it left certain people cold, and her directorial debut, Paradise, may have that effect for a different (and more disappointing) reason.
With her first bat behind camera Cody takes on a new kind of character: a Montana girl who is vanilla by most standards. Lamb (Julianne Hough) has been sheltered for all her life from what the real world has to offer, and while she was the popular Catholic girl that dedicated her life to God growing up she was left scarred by a plane crash. Her faith is shaken, and in response she attempts to live life to the fullest by committing a series of “sins” in Las Vegas. She wants to act like a “regular American,” indulging in characters traits Cody’s previous protagonists would’ve poked fun at.
Because of its lead character, Paradise isn’t a movie with a whole lot of irony. Cody set out to make a sweet movie that doesn’t gloss over serious problems, while also retaining a sense of optimism. It is called “Paradise” for a reason and, yes, the movie does have one of those lines with the title in it that gives you a big ‘ol nudge. The reason why that optimistic outlook doesn’t register is because of the unfocused eyes we experience it through. Despite having racked up a string of compelling protagonists, Lamb is Cody’s most muddled character to date. She never quite finds a consistent way to portray her. In certain scenes she’ll act oblivious, while in others, such as her clever banter with the friendly bartender William (Russell Brand) and a singer named Loray (Octavia Spencer), who take her out for a night in Vegas, she displays quick wit. It’s jarring, because Lamb’s tone will change at the drop of that hat.
The movie does an extraneous amount of telling, but those shifts in voice are never clear. Lamb’s voiceover spells out an awful lot of information, almost bafflingly so at times for pivotal scenes. At one point Lamb describes how a shower is the worst part of her day. Considering this is a movie, why not show that? Hough is a good enough actor to sell it, so it’s either Cody not trusting the actress’ ability or her own behind the camera.
Cody always has Lamb tell us how she feels, and despite that, it’s often difficult forming a grasp on who Lamb is. Extremely early on she mentions she could stay in Vegas forever after visiting a few locations – which are scenes we’re told about, not shown – and then later, while confronting William and Loray, she displays her frustration over the lack of fun she’s having with the two them and with Vegas in general. That transition isn’t sold, especially because two scenes earlier she made the same complaint and then Cody followed it up with a very fun, lighthearted sequence involving a zipline. It’s character whiplash, leading to a contrived segment with a frightened Lamb wandering a sensory-overload club.
All these traits add up to a character that’s, funnily enough, less empathetic than Mavis Gray from Young Adult. We understood where that narcissist was coming from. When Mavis blows up, it’s compelling to watch because we know exactly who that person is and why she acts out. For Paradise, Lamb is spelled out in broad strokes, but those broad strokes never play out in a convincing way. The Lamb we see in the last 15 or 20 minutes makes sense, but the catharsis Cody aims for isn’t earned because of the Lamb we saw every minute leading up to that ending.
With the exception of a strongly written lead, Paradise does include some of Cody’s other aforementioned talents. There’s a handful of instantly quotable lines that stands amongst her funniest material to date. Holly Hunter, playing Lamb’s mom, gives a speech about yoga videos by the end that makes you wish Hunter and Nick Offerman had more of a presence, but, ultimately, they’re well-used. Hunter and Offerman play small, key parts that require a degree of gravitas.
It’s Brand who comes away with the film, though. He’s showed in the past that he can be more than an unhinged comedic presence, but Cody shows even more of what Brand is capable of doing as an actor. He brings a lot of warmness to the film, and his scenes with Hough are genuinely sweet. When it’s the two of them simply talking with no overt zingers or narration, that’s when Paradise is at its best.
Those gentler scenes are why, despite not working as a whole, I hope Diablo Cody directs again soon. With a more focused script, Cody could make a film in league with Young Adult, Juno, and the overlooked Jennifer’s Body. Paradise is far from a bad start, but it’s not the introduction Cody was probably capable of making.
The Upside: Russell Brand doesn’t miss a comedic or dramatic beat; Cody has a good eye for casting; a few great, well-structured jokes; that speech about yoga videos
The Downside: The narration is frequently distracting; a sluggish first act; a second act “down in the dumps” turn is forced; the character Lamb doesn’t become focused until the third act
On The Side: The film was previously titled Lamb of God. Also, Diablo Cody wrote last night’s episode of Children’s Hospital.
Paradise is now available on DirecTV and opens in theaters on October 18th.