Leonardo DiCaprio will be enough to draw a flood at the box office for on opening weekend for "The Beach." But it's questionable whether his performance or the movie's spectacular visuals will keep it afloat in the long run. The movie, based on Alex Garland's bestseller, comes across as a good-looking, watchable and altogether derivative mishmash of "Lord of the Flies," "Apocalypse Now" and, for the romantics, dollops of "Titanic" and "The Blue Lagoon."
DiCaprio's character, a self-absorbed '90s brat named Richard, starts off the pic explaining that the audience doesn't need to know much about him. His blank slate is supposed to represent all the American twentysomethings who take off to foreign lands in search of something more concrete than a Nintendo Game Boy.
The credits have barely ended before Richard lands a room in a Bangkok hole inhabited by a few colorful characters, including the appropriately named Daffy (an over-the-top Robert Carlyle), a beautiful French girl named Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen) and her boyfriend Etienne (Guillaume Canet).
It appears that Daffy knows a secret about a perfect, unblemished isle off the Thai coast. Only a few people know about the place, and its endless supply of grass (the kind the natives smoke, too). Before a rather graphic suicide, Daffy passes along the map to the adventuresome protagonist, who invites his attractive French neighbors along for the expedition.
Trouble comes when they reach their point of destination. The island's an amazing eyeful (breathtakingly photographed by lenser Darius Khondji), but the marijuana farmers toting machine guns aren't exactly a welcoming committee. A group of westerners who've formed their own idyllic commune on the isle are allowed to stay under one condition -- no one else is allowed on the beach.
Richard and company manage to sneak in under the wire. And in a matter of mere movie minutes, Richard also sneaks in under buddy Etienne's radar, stealing girlfriend Francoise away for a well-choreographed midnight tryst in the ocean.
As with most stranded-on-an-isle adventure dramas, the weather continues to cloudy up. A trip to the mainland with the commune's controlling semi-dictator Sal ("Orlando's" Tilda Swinton) allows for a bit of blackmail and infidelity that will come back to haunt Richard -- at least in terms of the movie's potential as a love story.
From there, the film devolves into an unnecessary, unrealistic update of "Apocalypse," complete with funny fantasy sequences playing out in Richard's mind, and an unfunny comparison to the Kurtz-Willard relationship between Richard and his dead, off-kilter mentor Daffy.
The film has its moments of genuine hilarity (a take on Richard's obsession with video games earns huge laughs), but the scatter-shot tendencies of the script threaten to break the movie wide open, especially during the somewhat unbelievable last act.
Much of the film's lack of credibility is due to its underdeveloped characters. Since the movie fails to explain the reasons behind most of Richard's immature behavior, the guy remains annoyingly unreasonable and his reactions more than a little unrealistic. The same problems exist with Etienne, who disappears after being dumped by his girl, only to reappear late in the game.
Unfortunately for Leo's fans, the love story is given the same spotty treatment. Other than both being the same high caliber of pretty people, there's little explanation as to why they develop a relationship, or why they eventually fall out of it.
The movie semi-succeeds purely on its visceral strengths. The "Trainspotting" team behind the production -- director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew MacDonald and screenwriter John Hodge -- knows how to keep things moving. Fancy tracking shots of distorted waterfalls, flashbacks and fast-forwards, and the unpredictable story line, make the film eminently watchable, even if it's through wincing eyes.
The actors soldier on bravely enough. They're all to fun watch, despite the incredible plot developments. Leo in particular, especially during a speech he delivers after a shark attack, remains a magnetic presence, although his character severely tests the limits of likeability and identification.
"The Beach" is best enjoyed as a garish piece of professional trash filmmaking, occupied front and center by a superstar playing the kind of ugly American rebel every parent loves to hate. It doesn't rank near the best work of either the star or the filmmakers, in projects such as "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" and "Trainspotting," and it may not be as financially rewarding. But at least it isn't boring.
MPAA rating: R, for violence, some strong sexuality, language and drug content.
Leonardo DiCaprio: Richard
Tilda Swinton: Sal
Virginie Ledoyen: Francoise
Guillaume Canet: Etienne
Robert Carlyle: Daffy
A Figment Film, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Danny Boyle. Producer Andrew MacDonald. Screenplay John Hodge, based on the book by Alex Garland. Cinematographer Darius Khondji. Editor Mashario Hirakubo. Costumes Rachael Fleming. Music Angelo Badalamenti. Production design Andrew McAlpine. Art director Kuladee Suchatanun. Set decorator Anna Pinnock. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.