Ewan McGregor. You can't toss a caber in Scotland these days without toppling a gaggle of blokes who closely resemble him. Yet some magical combination of talent, charm and shrewd management has thrown wide the gates of choice projects for the young superstar, whose résumé already glows like a career retrospective. How strange it is, then, that in creating The Beach, director Danny Boyle and producer Andrew Macdonald (who more or less introduced McGregor to the world in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting), chose to transform the punchy narrator of Alex Garland's highly touted first novel from an obnoxious Brit to an annoying Yank. Exit McGregor (in a huff, allegedly and understandably), and enter the bankable young American actor.
Because that sprawling, unretouched adaptation of The Beach, with its obvious lead, does not exist outside of wishful thinking, none of this is intended to disparage the work of the King of the World. He's the draw, and the studio simply shaped this movie for maximum appeal. Besides, after illustrating his seemingly boundless confidence in movies as disparate as What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and Romeo + Juliet (not to mention blithely skipping the Oscars when passed over for Titanic), Leonardo DiCaprio has little need to prove he has the goods. Nonetheless, he hits The Beach under the full steam of career revisionism, keenly focused upon striding his path from cute boy to tough man.
It begins with one night in Bangkok, "where the hungry come to feed." As Richard, our narrator and anti-tourist, Leo gives us a lean portrait of ungrounded bravado, muttering dark travelogue observations like a reedy variation of Harrison Ford from Blade Runner. After landing and downing a shot of snake blood in an exotic market, he checks into a roach-infested flophouse echoing with the sounds of sex. Swiftly descending upon him is "Daffy Duck" (Robert Carlyle, with impenetrable Scottish burr, buzzed scalp and lunatic grin), who shares both his spliff and an enchanting tale of a forbidden island off the coast where an intrepid explorer may find the most beautiful beach ever seen, a veritable Eden.
The next day, a hand-drawn map to this paradise awaits Richard, but so does the corpse of Daffy, who, in his suicide, obviously went to a lot of trouble to spatter every square inch of his squalid room with blood. Undaunted, nay delighted, Richard clears himself with the law, palms the map and invites the previous night's amorous young French couple to join him on his capricious adventure. Etienne (Guillaume Canet) makes the arrangements for the 500-mile journey, and his covetable girlfriend, Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen, known for Benoit Jacquot's 1995 A Single Girl, among other European features), provides inspiration, momentum and a bit of mischief.
After swift travels and a final lifeline exchange of urban legend and dope on the mainland with some loutish, unwashed Americans, Richard spews some clumsy come-ons about the infinite reaches of the universe to Françoise. She coyly acknowledges his interest but carries on snapping photos of the cosmos. The next morning, she and he and Etienne hit the surf, with minimal gear, to swim the mile or so toward their mysterious destination, where it's pretty likely they're not going to encounter Gilligan and the Skipper. Try, instead, gun-toting ganja farmers and a perverse little colony of hip young castaways, adding up, in due course, to trouble in Club Paradise.
Despite being widely praised as the definitive Gen X manifesto (as if Douglas Coupland and Quentin Tarantino never existed), Garland's novel reads like a retelling of Lord of the Flies (or John Dollar, or The Mosquito Coast) as filtered crudely through John Irving's Setting Free the Bears. It's a big, pulpy mass of observations from an adventure-starved, semi-deluded, media-soaked young man with a backpack, abroad in a foreign land. The theme (social breakdown in isolation) is strong, but the plot meanders and the motivations are decidedly hazy, so its popularity probably stems from its seamless blending of naive wonder and soul-mining horror. Also, Garland has an undeniable gift for detail, rendering tangible everything from papayas to potchentong.
For the movie, Garland and Boyle's regular scribe, John Hodge, have taken a machete to the book, carving from it a tight and driven screenplay that perfectly hits its marks (maleficent monkey at 30 minutes, Yankee interlopers at 60) but often moves too fast for its own credibility, despite an altogether more satisfying climax. The essence of Richard's cultural conflict and his resulting societal polarization are mostly intact, thanks to Boyle's potent ability to contrast the funky and the fulgent. (Remember the young junkies of Trainspotting bemoaning their inability to appreciate the Caledonian mountains in their own backyard?) In the third act, though, as the knave slips further and further from reality and slides deeper into his violent delusions (think Apocalypse Now as a video game), what works on the page starts to seem silly on the screen.
It's Leo's movie, and when he's not stretching himself too thin, it flows pretty well. The amusing frustrations and pithy self-deprecation put the actor's gifts to good use. When Richard loses his humility and becomes a Dick, however, look out. I doubt too many people plunking down their ticket money will be expecting a half-pint Hemingway or a reductive Rambo. He's simply too young for such macho posturing (anybody with a moderate case of halitosis could take him down), and the stakes are so stilted that it comes off as a giggle. Where his youth works, however, is in his weaknesses: playing for Françoise, careless infidelity, bloodlust, starving for a mentor to the point of making one of Daffy.
Carlyle is nicely depraved for his limited time onscreen, and Tilda Swinton (Orlando) also deserves notice for playing the twisted yin to his yang as Sal, the covertly tyrannical self-appointed leader of the island's colony. Ledoyen is lovely and clever, but, like much of the movie, her character and motivations are underdrawn. As for Canet, his task as the jilted boyfriend is hardly enviable or particularly believable. The best work comes from the colony as a whole, mildewy Benetton models who perfectly represent the spooky ironies of eternal holiday-making. Though there's something inherently vulgar about a skanky white guy with a dirty guitar crooning Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," the montage of everyone desperately ordering provisions from the mainland (tampons, painkillers, beef curry) is a chunk of art in itself.
The Beach is a pretty cool movie in execution, with gorgeous photography (do more erotic scenes, Danny!), and whatever ecological crises ensued during its production do not appear on the screen. One could make a case that the characters' golly-gee wonder over a bit of white sand and blue water makes the reaction shots of Jurassic Park seem restrained. One could also posit that there's something genuinely psychotic about a young American man who can dismiss violent death as casually as Richard does. But this movie is about generating the illusion of depth for the multiplex, a slice of Sociology 101 set to a rave beat in the tropics. Aldous Huxley would have yawned, but most audiences will probably groove to it.
Opens Feb. 11.