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‘Paradise’: Disappointing directing debut from Diablo Cody

‘PARADISE’ ★★

Lamb Julianne Hough

William Russell Brand

Loray Octavia Spencer

Doug Nick Offerman

Mother Holly Hunter

RLJ Entertainment presents a film written and directed by Diablo Cody. Running time: 86 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for sexual material, substance abuse, some language and thematic elements). Available on demand on DirecTV and opening Friday at Streets of Woodfield in Schaumburg.

Updated: November 19, 2013 6:11AM



Buried deep in the shallowness ...

Wait. You can’t be buried deep in something shallow, can you? I’ll start again.

This is the kind of self-aware narration you get throughout “Paradise,” the slight and forgettable directorial debut of Diablo Cody, who won the Oscar for her screenplay for “Juno” but goes surprisingly bland and obvious for her first foray behind the camera.

So we’ll start again with the whole deep/shallow thing. Somewhere in the foundation of “Paradise,” which Cody also penned, there is the nugget of an intriguing story.

We start with a Montana-bred, beautiful, pure, home-schooled, God-is-everything, blonde angel named Lamb (Julianne Hough). This sweet thing never questioned anything about her parents (played by a bald and mustache-free and typically deadpan Nick Offerman, and Holly Hunter, who’s usually magnificent but seems bored here) or her church or her faith or her life — until a horrible accident created an inferno that left Lamb burned over most of her body.

Months after the tragedy, the bandaged and bewigged Lamb is set to make a triumphant return to church, where the congregation is jazzed to hear the incredible story of how Lamb’s faith guided her through every step of her recovery and how her very survival is a testament to God’s good grace.

Yeah, no. Lamb shocks everyone by denouncing her faith, questioning God’s existence and proclaiming she’s going to explore the world and take chances. “I might even vote Democrat!” she declares, sending the faithful into a tizzy — and making us wonder if the rest of the story is going to be so ham-handed.

Alas, the answer is yes.

Lamb sets out for Sin City itself, Las Vegas — but instead of plunging into an edgy, scary, provocative adventure, she finds herself in a fairy tale with only a few rough edges.

Octavia Spencer’s Loray is a singer of little success and a sad backstory. Russell Brand’s William is a womanizing bartender who talks just like Russell Brand.

Like characters from the Land of Oz, they seem to have been waiting their whole lives for Lamb to show up just so they can immediately attach themselves to her and become her BFFs in a 24-hour period.

We’re told William is a callous user, but he seems about as edgy and threatening as a talking stuffed animal with an adorable accent. Brand can be brilliant in the right role, but here he comes across as a hired hand who showed up, said, “What are my lines again?” and phoned in his performance.

Spencer fares better, injecting at least some dimension into the obligatory tough cookie turned mentor for someone she just met. Judging by some of her comments, Loray almost seems to know she’s a character in a movie.

Julianne Hough? She delivers the kind of bland, sometimes awkward work that makes us appreciate real actors.

Hough played the lead in the retro-musicals “Footloose” and “Rock of Ages.” She starred in “Safe Haven,” a typically dopey and overwrought romantic tragedy from the Nicholas Sparks factory. “Paradise” represents her fourth swing and a miss. She seems like a lovely person and she looks quite nice onscreen, but if Ms. Hough has any evidence to present to make her case as a legitimate actress that can carry a movie, now would be the time to come forward.

By the time Diablo Cody was collecting awards for her screenplay for “Juno,” a backlash had already set in among those who were less than enamored with a writing style that was peppered with rapid-fire pop culture references and almost too perfectly crafted rejoinders. Yeah, well, sometimes the ingénues and the professors in Woody Allen movies sound similar too. I was among the minority who enjoyed Cody’s screenplay for “Jennifer’s Body,” and I thought her script for the criminally underrated “Young Adult” was superior to “Juno.”

“Paradise” is a ringing disappointment. Cody shows some potential as a director, but her own script lets her down.

Email: rroeper@suntimes.com

Twitter: @richardroeper



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