The prestigious fall film festival season is in full swing and anyone who remotely matters in cinema (or Hollywood) is represented in some shape or form—especially at the celeb-friendly Toronto International Film Festival which accepts over 250 films. But one name, an Academy Award-winner with a brand spanking new movie is conspicuously absent. While plenty of unknowns, first-timers and even actors-turned-directors (like Jason Bateman) are about to make their first-time feature bow at Toronto this week, in contrast, famed screenwriter Diablo Cody quietly unveiled her feature-length debut on the little-seen DirecTV cable channel last month (look for the number of reviews; there aren’t many). And unfortunately it seems like Cody's feature directorial inauguration, "Paradise," was tucked away for good reason: it’s an insipid confection of cloying hopefulness, bubblegum teen spirit and self-reflexive clever quips.
Tonally somewhere between a Lifetime after school special and a cheeky, self-satisfied Disney Channel episode of“Sweet Valley High” (a property Cody once was attached to adapt), “Paradise” (formerly “Lamb Of God”) centers on Lamb Mannheim (Julianne Hough), a once picture perfect, super-Christian, Montana-dwelling teenager now in the midst of a spiritual crisis. Severely burned in a freak plane crash that killed her boyfriend and left her with burns across her entire body, Lamb is now badly scarred, having to wear hideous pressure garments underneath her clothes. And so the teenager suffers a crisis of faith, wondering, “if God exists, how could he let this happen to me?” Much to the shock of her conservative parents (Nick Offerman and Holly Hunter), her spiritual crisis progresses and Lamb terrorizes the God-fearing parish with her blasphemy, eventually leaving her small Montana community for Las Vegas, committed to fraternizing with “homosexuals, Muslims” and gasp, Democrats. Once there, she befriends affable but skeevy British bartender William (Russell Brand) and Loray (Octavia Spencer), an equally cynical and disgruntled Vegas soul singer, both of whom are strangely attracted (and irritated) by this curiously innocent creature. Friendships are formed, bonds and boundaries are tested and life lessons are learned all within a 24-hour span, and of course, even the naive Lamb teaches her skeptical big-city friends a thing or two about life.
The premise is harmless but the execution is not. Where to start? Subtext seems to have escaped Cody in the writing process as the movie has nothing but surface. And kind of embarrassing surface at that. Aside from its syrupy drivel (often delivered via insufferable voice-over), there’s an oceanic insincerity that the movie can’t parse. One might have more respect for the picture if it had the courage of its cheerful convictions, but every feel-good moment is undermined by some sarcastic, would-be clever pop-culture-referencing crack. In fact, it feels like every scene has to be topped with a bon mot that’s performed with a winky exclamation point (“And here's me after I was barbequed in jet fuel!”). And while pleased-with-oneself wisecracks were always Cody’s bread and butter, they at least usually fit the characters. But Lamb? Home-schooled, supposedly cloistered from the world and sequestered from pop culture sassily delivers gags and references to Fiestaware, Keffiyeh hipster scarves, “Lucifer Dust” (her word for glitter) being a “deep fried Twinkie from Montana," and the like. "You're so lucky, you’ve never been exposed to pop culture!” one peanut gallery character squeals with genuine delight, which is ironic considering just how much the movie loves to shoehorn in pointless zeitgeist references at the expense of even the one note of characterization it's managed till then.
The central trio are mostly hollow vessels for Cody’s sardonic and maddeningly self-aware dialogue (let’s not even get into how bland and miscast Hough is as the lead). In fact, the script even calls for Octavia Spencer's character explaining aloud the narrative convention of the magical negro in relation to Caucasian characters (just like it’s happening in the movie!)—if that sounds unbearable, that’s because it is. Furthermore, scored by Oscar-winning composer Rachel Portman (“Never Let Me Go,” “Chocolat”), musically, “Paradise” is bouncy to the point of a special-needs-camp-singalong. The cutesy score is all obnoxious gumdrops and twee pixie sparkles, which perhaps a more experienced director would have jettisoned in favor of some counterbalance but Cody unwisely embraces. So montage sequences of various “sin” end with a ringing “ding!” and a title listing the all-too-apparent action (“Sin #7 - Sweetness”) in bright pink high school cursive scrawled across the screen. Bleurgh.
Among screenwriters-turned-feature-length filmmakers there have been some fairly high-profile failures in recent years, like Dustin Lance Black and Geoffrey Fletcher, two recent examples of Academy Awarded writers ("Milk" and "Precious," respectively) who immediately parlayed that cachet into directorial debuts that turned out to be egregious turkeys ("Virginia" and "Violet & Daisy"). And it pains us to say it (never having been ones to partake of the Cody haterade) but this is right up, or rather down, there with those clunkers. In fact, Cody has gotten an unfair rap for reasons too numerous to mention (most of them something to do with being a woman, a former stripper, and being hyped beyond her control right off the bat), but she’s written three good-to-terrific movies and two of them (“Jennifer’s Body” and yes, even “Young Adult”) were arguably far superior on the page. But “Paradise” is neither a good film nor is there any evidence it was a good script. The picture never remotely reconciles its desire to be earnest with its crippling weakness for delivering ironic retorts and instead feels like a flimsy Movie of The Week that concludes with sage aphorisms reminding the character (and viewers) that you don’t have to be physically burned to be scarred by life (no really). We don't quite know how it came about that Cody lost her way so spectacularly, but for now, she might as well feature on a milk carton with the inscription, “Talented writer, last seen somewhere in Vegas.” [D]Diablo Cody’s “Paradise” premiered on DirecTV in early August. More new photos from the film below.