Return To Paradise

(rated R) starring Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Joaquin Phoenix, David Conrad, and Jada Pinkett Smith.
written by Wesley Strick and Bruce Robinson, directed by Joseph Ruben.

Would you give up three or more years of your life to save the life of a friend? This is the question asked in Jospeh Ruben's compelling moral drama RETURN TO PARADISE, a film that uses the word "drama" to its' full extent. 3 friends(Vaughn, Phoenix, and Conrad) have taken a post-collegiate trip to Malaysia, an island where thay have taken advantage of women who like them because they are Americans, beautiful, lush landscape, and lots of very cheap hashish. Joaquin Phoenix, as Louis, who ends up with the film's best performance, is the only one of the three that has decided to stay a little while longer. He is interested in trying to save the orangutans. So the friends say goodbye, then head their separate ways for two years. Vince Vaughn plays John Volgerchev, known as "Sheriff", who is now a New York cab driver. One day, he has a new client stepping into his vehicle. She is lawyer Beth Eastern(Anne Heche), and she has come to tell him something very important. After they left Malaysia, a man who had his bike stolen(by Sheriff, ironically) comes to the hut with police to see if it's still there. Instead of the bicycle, they find a lot of hash. More than a lot of hash. So Louis has been in jail for the past two years. He will be getting out in a week. But, in Malaysia, if someone has too much hash, they are recognized as a trafficker, and since no one has come claiming responsibility, Louis will be hanged in a week unless Sheriff and Tony(Conrad) come claiming responsibility. If one man shows up, he will get six years, if both show up, it's three years each. That presents the problem and the script defines it perfectly. It's impossible to show you what's so great about this film without giving away major plot points, so I'll keep it brief. Ruben's(THE GOOD SON, THE STEPFATHER) direction is good, but it's the script by Strick(THE SAINT, WOLF) and Robinson(THE KILLING FIELDS, JENNIFER 8) is great and keeps the story moving. It was based on alittle seen French film called FORCE MAJUERE. The film also features a love subplot between Vaughn and Heche which most reviewers deemed cliched and not needed. But I feel that it did not take away from the film and was needed. Vaughn's character felt particularly distant from me, probably because he didn't show very much emotion in a role that required more. Heche is fine in her role as the lawyer. Pinkett is a bit of a distraction as reporter M.J. Major, but Joaquin Phoenix shows that he is one of America's finest young character actors. He plays an afflicted man with incredible sadness and lowliness. He seems to be even better than his late brother, River. The ending tries to make us feel the least bit good, but the overall sadness of the movie is something that will not leave us quickly. The movie brought out my emotions, and is one of the better films I've seen this year. Hollywood has made an accomplishment. ***1/2