“Innocence never lasts forever.” This is the tagline for The Beach, the expensive and highly touted occasion for Leo’s long-awaited return to the big screen. How silly it sounds, when everyone knows that “innocence” is impossible to lose because it never exists, except as a marketing hook and plot device, a gorgeous vacation postcard brought into perfectly composed cinematic existence in The Beach.
It surprises me that the well-paid and surely well-experienced PR folks would cook up a tagline so dumb and so overtly cynical, but it could be that I’m missing the point. It could be that they think potential viewers of the film will read that tagline and think, “Hmmm, you know, that’s so true, innocence doesn’t last forever,” and then happily lay down their eight bucks to get a look at this innocence-losing process in The Beach.
It could be, but I doubt it. For The Beach is the crassest kind of star vehicle, where everyone involved seems to be hoping for a turn on Leonardo DiCaprio’s unimaginable-popularity-ride. The movie commercials focus on Leo’s tanned body, MTV’s Movie Special on his struggles with sex-symboldom, the magazine covers on his youthfully poofy cheeks and fuzzy chin (Talk, The Face, Rolling Stone, Time) or his scrumptious-diddly-umptious co-star Virginie Ledoyen (Glamour, Details, Maxime Figaro). And what do you learn from this onslaught of Leo-ness? You learn that he probably made the correct choice in taking The Beach Over Mary Harron’s American Psycho (based on Brett Easton Ellis’s inflammatory novel), a festival-rousing, controversial film about complex and difficult issues like U.S. consumer culture, male aggression, racism and heterosexism.
The Beach is also about these things, but it handles them with a self-congratulatory simplicity. This is sad, considering that the film has been put together by the once-deft-and-trendy Shallow Grave and Trainspotting team, director Danny Boyle, writer John Hodge (working from Alex Garland’s novel), and producer Andrew Macdonald (let’s forget A Life Less Ordinary for the moment, as everyone attached to The Beach seems to have done). It’s also sad that The Beach is at heart a silly movie, with little to say about any of the topics it appears to want to wrestle with. DiCaprio told Rolling Stone that he sees the movie as being about “how the human animal is pretty much preprogrammed to destroy the natural order,” and his character, Richard, “thinks he wants to live in a very primitive, isolated world,” but can’t help being a “silicon man,” a product of his culture.
Early in The Beach, Richard tells himself that he’s looking for the real thing, whether that be love, enlightenment, self-knowledge, or compassion. This is the kind of quest that characters in “important” movie usually undertake, whether on purpose or accidentally. The Beach references several of the most famous of these movie quests, including Apocalypse Now (Robert Duvall on the beach, on a background TV), The Deerhunter (via a nasty Russian roulette-ish showdown), and Lord of the Flies (perhaps the most obvious precedent, though far more devastating and self-interrogating than The Beach seems able to imagine being). Even compared to Cimino’s sentimental recuperation of mishmashed community and patriotism, The Beach is lightweight. Bewildered to the end, Richard and the movie pretend that he learns a lesson about moral commitment. But he gets off easy, undeterred from the blissful racism and imperialist ignorance with which he begins the film.
This beginning takes the form of a voice-over, as Richard wanders the crowded streets in Bangkok, a tourist looking for a dose of what he conceives as dirty reality. Challenged by one fellow to drink snake’s blood, Richard initially resists, then decides to do the deed: the camera shows him through a glass aquarium in which a cobra is conveniently placed to flare its hood when Richard triumphantly imbibes his bloody shot. “Never refuse an invitation,” he advises the rest of us. “Never resist the unfamiliar.” Titillated by his own derring-do, the erstwhile “tourist” Richard takes off his walkman and risks making friends with a manifestly demented fellow renting down the hall who calls himself Daffy (Robert Carlyle). Sweaty, ashy-faced, and crusty-lipped, Daffy’s a lot like Martin Sheen back in Saigon, troubled by demons (only he’s a junkie rather than a drunk). He and Richard share a spliff and some chat about paradise and parasites, Daffy gives Richard a crude hand-drawn map, showing the way to a mysterious island where dope grows everywhere and people are really, really friendly.
Nervous about going off on his own and not a little tempted by the beautiful French girl staying with her boyfriend in the same hotel, Richard asks the couple to come along. Luckily for the expedition, Etienne (Guillaume Canet) has some Thai, and Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen) has more nerve than both the boys put together. More easily than they should be able to, they make it to this island valhalla, and wouldn’t you know it, things fall apart. There are clues along the way that trouble is brewing, because Richard is a blabbermouth narrator, eager to tell you what everything means and how it fits into his story. Mostly, he’s eager to tell you how he’s feeling, which ranges from self-righteous to vaguely guilty to victimized.
At the island, they’re greeted by a fellow “traveler” named Keaty (Paterson Joseph), who happens to be the only black character with speaking part. (“Travelers” are different in their minds from “tourists.) Tellingly in this film’s racial schematic Keaty will serve as a kind of wise adviser to Richard, suggesting, for instance, that he not take up with Francoise (which of course he does) and that he not isolate himself from the rest of the community (which he also does). Deeper into the island’s forestry, Richard and his friends find that community, camped out for some six years on an internal beach, what Richard calls “a beach resort for people who don’t like beach resorts,” composed of white sand, clear water, and perfect fish who seem ready and willing to be speared (all gloriously shot by Darius Khondji).
And it turns out again, tellingly, given the money and leisure time it takes to be reach the island that most all the community members are white, English-speaking, and apparently straight beauties (a couple of girls hold hands, but there’s no sign that anyone has coupled off in any units other than those of the standard “missionary” persuasion). This self-deemed “family” (dysfunctional of course) is blond and tanned, looking way too much like that happy fascist community who lived on the Utopian Planet in the original Star Trek series, the one Captain Kirk had to lecture about democracy and murder. Richard offers commentaries on the principals, but until he’s pressed, he mostly forgets about the first people he encounters on the island. The “farmers,” as they’re called, are a group of Thai men with guns, guarding their abundant marijuana fields against interlopers. Though they have a deal with the settlers, it’s soon broken.
This change of terms is orchestrated around Richard’s increasingly testy relationship with the white folks’ leader, Sal (Tilda Swinton). Though she appears at first to be the ideal sort of leader-by-acclaim, she’s soon revealed to be more narcissistic than maternal or discreet, aided by her supercilious carpenter-boyfriend Bugs (Lars Arentz-Hansen). She ends up being abusive in many ways, and so transmutates into Richard’s object lesson in bad behavior, fair-skinned and freckled, treacherous and intimidating. Embodying whiteness and self-interested aggression, Sal might be read as the film’s perfect poster person, someone willing to go to just about any lengths to preserve the civilization-building fictions of paradise and innocence.
Sal’s conflict with Richard redeems him, which means she must be bad so he can be good. This conflict is exemplified in a scene where he recounts his experience with a shark who comes at him while he’s spearing fish during a rainstorm that has denied the community their usual fish meals. Imagining himself as the hero, Richard tells his audience whose plates are now heaped with sharkmeat about his encounter, his initial fear, his decision to fight back, his delirious triumph. Sal and Bugs sit off to the side, grumpily noting Richard’s self-aggrandizement at the expense of what was likely a baby shark, not an accomplished predator at all.
Richard, however, can’t understand their disapproval. He sees himself as a hero and grand storyteller. He’s got the second part pretty much correct. The Beach tells a lot of stories, not the least being that it has anything substantive to say. In truth, this movie is not going to upset any conventional ideas, say, neat oppositions between “man” and “nature,” or innocence and experience. Instead, it’s about confirming the myths that allow so-called “civilization” to live with itself, to imagine that its intentions are good even when its effects are horrific. What’s more, the film is going to leave DiCaprio’s post-Titanic career intact, meaning that it’s unlikely it will change the way anyone feels about him, for good or ill. Throughout The Beach, the star looks pretty, sun-blondish and flawlessly tanned. Even when he plays caddish for a few minutes and has a raucous good time imagining himself (after Sal banishes him to the forest for a few days) as a Playstation Gameboy hero. The effects in this sequence are deliriously out of place in the rest of the movie, which is one reason it’s actually interesting, a bit of out-and-out derangement in the midst of too much breathtaking beachscape imagery. Leo’s fans who are legion needn’t fret.
The maintenance of DiCaprio’s celebrity is, of course, no small matter, as it means a lot of money for various people. (Lucky for Kate Winslett, no one seems to hold her responsible for delivering star turns in the way everyone and his mother seems to demand it of her Titanic co-star: even if Holy Smoke is disappointing and not because of her Hideous Kinky is a lovely, sensual, and risk-taking film, of which she should be proud). DiCaprio acts like he means to do right by his fans and handlers, which translates, in part, to acting mystified by his own fame. He recently told the Sun (London) that he feels he’s gone from being the underdog, whose movies never made any money, “to being the Antichrist.’’ Poor guy.
Still, it’s possible to see The Beach as a parable for this trajectory, in that it traces a young man’s search for a rumored island paradise and his disillusionment with the monstrosity he finds there, or more to the point, the monstrosity he finds in himself (figured most spectacularly in that Gameboy sequence: the tech-entertainment-creature rising up). But star and story never probe too deeply into this revelation, as it might involve acknowledging the extent to which the film’s production itself became monstrous. That is, 20th Century Fox has not fulfilled its promise to restore the location Maya Bay, on the island of Phi Phi Lay that the production crew transformed into a recognizable “paradise” (by planting non-indigenous palm trees that ruined the island’s own ecology). As if to add insult to injury, the studio has embarked on a campaign to promote tourism in Thailand, in order to appease the government, if not the actual people who live there.
It’s not a little ironic, then, that The Beach thematizes but never examines its own assumptions concerning a similarly neocolonialist threat to “natural” purity. On this tip, it may be worth noting that the movie’s Richard is not British, as in the novel, but a prototypical U.S. child of privilege. Certainly, U.S. kids are the easiest targets for those looking to condemn popculture-multimedia-heads. Richard, so intently self-absorbed and so oblivious to the chaos he wreaks during his search for truth and purity, appears to incarnate all that is corrupt in U.S. cultural exporting. It could be that Richard’s grim glibness is precisely how Simpsons fan Danny Boyle sees “youths” evolving Stateside, into dangerous, self-absorbed sharks, feeding off their environments and exploiting anyone and anything that gets in their way. But it’s also true that such sharks are by definition unable to see beyond themselves and their immediate needs, and that in human form, they tend to make themselves feel better by creating and consuming self-images that look a lot like The Beach.