Paradise is a film about soul-searching, which is convenient, since it feels like Diablo Cody is searching her own soul to rediscover the edgy voice that made her once seem so fresh. Or, alternatively, maybe this is just what happens when Cody runs out of juice. This is the kind of lean, thin, mercifully short wannabe-cute comedy that the Oscar-winning screenwriter could write in her sleep… and maybe she did. Her quasi-smug punk attitude is well-accounted for, though it seems like the edges have been rounded. The pithy one-liners are on display as well, but their jabs are blunted. I’m not sure if Cody is trying to deliver a mild departure from her now-infamous signature style, or if she’s burnt out to the point of attempting to self-mimicry. Either way, while watching the film, I wanted to see a full-on Diablo Cody movie, but I got the neutered version.
Unfortunate irony is, this is a Diablo Cody movie! In fact, it is the first true “Diablo Cody Film,” for the scribe makes her directorial debut with this fairly innocuous warm-hearted fluff piece. That result is a letdown, given Cody’s voice — which, poppy and self-referential though it is, should fit right into the auteurist mold. There has been a small influx of strong female characters in recent years, buoyed by the rise of strong new female voices, but there was a point when Cody was the Queen of Zeitgeist, the Caustic Voice of Women in Film. For her first foray into directing to be Paradise, with its repressed-girl-rebels-but-finds-good-in-all-things trajectory, feels like a case of diminishing returns. Or maybe this is who Cody is now… this is her true directorial voice. So, ya know, maybe I was really just hoping for a Jason Reitman film.
Cody protagonists are great movie creations, for they are brash in a way we all wish we could be. But in Paradise, Lamb Mannerheim (a name that makes “Juno MacGuff” sound like your next-door neighbor) is more of a wallflower, which could’ve been an interesting character type for Cody to explore, but instead it just feels muted. Granted, Lamb (Julianne Hough) is a church girl who was raised in a conservative home apparently modeled after a ‘50s sitcom, but after surviving a plane crash and suffering severe burns, she goes into Rebel Mode. “There is no God!” she proclaims to her small-town church — in a scene way too cute for its own good — before taking her massive insurance payout and heading off to Vegas, where she intends to… sin.
Most of the sinning, however, is relegated to quick montages, composed with cleverness but curiously little charm. The bulk of Lamb’s actions in Vegas consist of… talking. She encounters a sage bartender in the form of a toned-down Russell Brand and a wizened lounge singer in the form of Octavia Spencer (at least she recognizes her role, referring to herself as Lamb’s “Magic Black Lady” at one point). Together, they share in the aforementioned sin montages, but mainly just discuss living for the moment and recognizing the good in all things. Then the night ends, and that’s basically it.
Paradise takes the form of a simple “One Crazy Night of Deep Revelations” story, except the night isn’t that crazy and the revelations aren’t that deep. Cody specializes in small, personal stories, but even by that standard, this screenplay feels insular, almost like a chamber drama. Lamb moves from one closed room to the next, engaging in one simple, two-person dialogue sequence to the next, and learning one valuable life lesson after the next, like a non-seasonal Vegas Christmas Carol. The actors acquit themselves well and the story can’t fully escape Cody’s wit, but Paradise is safe, easy, and tame. Not very sinful, and not very compelling, either.