Snappy scribe Diablo Cody finally steps behind the camera for her “Paradise,” a directorial debut composed of many of the filmmaker’s trademarks (strong women, pop cultural-heavy dialogue, a difficult subject matter made light by way of wit) that still manages to disappoint when it comes to the final product. Starring a curiously cast Julianne Hough as young Lamb, “Paradise” follows her struggles to reconcile her family’s very conservative religious beliefs with recent hard knocks in her own life that have made it damn near impossible for her to believe in God.
Barely healed after an airplane accident that left two-thirds of her body burnt to a crisp (though, conveniently enough, Hough’s beautiful face is untouched by the scarring, save for a dark patch on her neck), Lamb renounces God during a meant-to-be-inspirational speech at her small town church and sets off for “Satan’s playground” (yes, Las Vegas) to get her fill on all the sins she’s missed out on during her cloistered life. Rest assured, young Lamb (of God) will learn more than a few lessons while on her journey to the dark side, gathering up both experiences and offbeat friends along the way to (maybe) true salvation.
Once in Vegas, Lamb joins up with two very different new pals – Russell Brand’s sarcastic and charming bartender William and his best friend, down-and-out lounge singer Loray (played by a wildly miscast Octavia Spencer, clearly on hand to add a bit of gravitas to the proceedings) – and the pair aid her on her quest to get her sin on. Unsurprisingly, Paradise builds in an unbelievable romance between Lamb and William that fails to satisfy, at least as it’s been designed. Hough and Brand’s romantic chemistry never really pops, though the pair clearly have a working affection for each other (they previously worked together on “Rock of Ages”) that makes their interactions feel warm enough, even if purely in the spirit of friendship.
The film doesn’t have the fresh, zingy immediacy of Cody’s other work (though it is a good thing that it won’t coin any terms as silly as “honest to blog”) and, frankly, it feels a bit dated, as if it should have opened five years ago in order to feel subversive or bold in the least. Cody’s typically clever and original wordplay is toned down significantly here, and while she manages to keep a lovely and light tone to the film, it’s not nearly as funny as her other projects (from the spirited “Juno” to the much darker “Young Adult”). Many of the details of the film are a bit too obvious and spot-on (her name is Lamb and she ventures to a section of town outside Las Vegas called Paradise? Come on, now, you’re better than this), a disappointing turn from a newbie director like Cody who also happens to be a very seasoned screenwriter.
Cody does, however, do right by her setting – putting her characters in real-feeling Las Vegas bars and clubs, and not relying on the oft-filmed Strip to give Lamb a “Hangover”-styled adventure. Instead our heroine completes her sin checklist at local joints, depressing hotel lounges, and Vegas’ own theme-park-styled downtown area. When Lamb eventually makes her way to the city’s most swanky nightclub, it’s done with a knowing nod to the type of aspirational pursuits that make Las Vegas prove risky for so many thrill-seekers, and that Lamb has her most honest interaction there (in a bathroom, no less) is one of the best choices Cody makes in her film.
Former professional dancer Hough has steadily built up her acting resume in recent years – starting with singing and dancing heavy fare like “Burlesque,” “Rock of Ages,” and the “Footloose” remake, she’s also got a Nicholas Sparks romance (“Safe Haven”) under her belt and a thriller (“Curve”) coming up – and “Paradise” is an interesting step forward for her. While Hough might not be the first or most obvious choice to spout off Cody’s many, well, Codyisms, she brings an earnest sweetness to the role that mingles quite nicely with her game comedic timing. While Cody’s heroines are most often associated with Ellen Page’s drily funny turn in “Juno,” the filmmaker’s resume is rounded out with plenty of very different, very complicated leading ladies, and Hough’s Lamb is a generally satisfying new counterpoint to some of Cody’s more well known creations.
The film relegates the wonderful Holly Hunter and Nick Offerman to minor roles at Lamb’s parents, though Hunter and Hough really spark to each other in their limited interactions. With a snappy eighty-eight-minute runtime, such shunting aside of big talents is understandable, but Paradise as a whole could stand some serious fleshing out. The film is a fine enough diversion, and it marks an interesting progression for both Cody and Hough, but it ultimately doesn’t fulfill any of its promise, godly or otherwise.
SCORE: 5.7 / 10