|Russell Brand, Julianne Hough, and Octavia Spencer in Paradise|
Las Vegas is a stand-in for a broken and bruised America in Diablo Cody's Paradise. With its 24-hr bars, glorious water fountains, and mile high hotels, it is no longer Bugsy Siegal's dream; it is the dream of bloated American suburbanites. But Lamb (Julianne Hough), a conservative girl from a religious family, still thinks of it as "Satan's playground." After a life altering accident that has left most of her body burned and destroyed her faith in God, she flies to Las Vegas for a weekend to sample the depravity. Years of being a churchgoer in a small town has her yearning to be "a normal American."
Hough is wonderful as Lamb, showing the fragility of a burn victim and the innocence of a 21-year old who has lived a sheltered life. She brings her own dishes to the hotel, but not even her fear of germs can prevent her from being overwhelmed by the luxurious bedroom and view. She wants to party, but her hair and clothes are so dated that someone asks if she's there for "80s night." When someone asks if she's a Jew, Lamb recoils, but later says "Oy vey," trying on some Yiddish. Las Vegas is a place for reinvention; she's game to try.
Like Dorothy in Oz, Lamb meets some new friends who help guide her on her night of discovery. There's William (Russell Brand), a British bartender who is fascinated by her simplicity. There's also Loray (Octavia Spencer), who knows from taking a film course that she's doomed to play sassy black characters in other people's lives, but appears to enjoy the chance to be Lamb's "magic negro." There's even a hard-hearted hooker (Kathleen Rose Perkins) who encounters Lamb in the ladies room of a nightclub, where they recognize each other as wounded souls. "You're still the same girl you were 10 years ago," Lamb tells the hooker, but she's also talking about herself. Not for lack of trying, Lamb doesn't experience any grand revelations during her trip. She finds Las Vegas to be rather boring and gross. But as Loray tells her, a person doesn't have to go to Las Vegas to learn about themselves. There are other places, less plastic places.
Cody, who is making her debut as a director after writing some very fine screenplays, including Juno, Young Adult, Jennifer's Body, and several episodes of Showtime's The United States of Tara, often writes about women dealing with major and unexpected changes. She's written about pregnant teens, women who become monsters, women with drinking problems, and women with split personalities. In writing about a burn victim, Cody may have found her perfect symbol for a woman at the mercy of outside forces. When Lamb says her neighbors believe her burns to be punishment from God, or squeezes a rubber ball to help the scar tissue on her hands, we realize the depths of her anguish. Yet, she never seems self-pitying. Cody's strength is to take a story that could conceivably be a Lifetime network original, strip the sentiment out of it, and create real characters. That's why her movies always seem familiar yet unique, and it's why her pregnant teens and burn victims seem atypical.
Also, Paradise is not a typical Las Vegas movie. Cody serves up a fluffy version of the city, until it seems more like a late night shopping mall than a city of sin. In some movies, William would've been a shady type who leads Lamb to temptation. In Paradise, William turns out to be a decent fellow, and Brand plays him with just the right amount of humor and braggadocio. Spenser and Perkins are also good as women who have created tough personas to help them survive in Las Vegas, yet have grown weary. I'm also happy to report that, aside from a Junoesque narrative by Lamb, Cody dials down her trademark snappy dialog. In Paradise, characters actually talk to each other rather than blurt out obscure music references and snarky insults. When her new friends realize Lamb hasn't been exposed to much pop culture, one of them laments, "You're so lucky."
Some may find Cody's approach too lighthearted, but she's made a warm movie, and presents it at a relaxed, leisurely pace. But there is one stirring scene that hints at Cody's potential as a filmmaker, a scene where Lamb enjoys a zip-cord ride through the night sky. Her small, frail body, still bleeding from her skin grafts, is juxtaposed against the bright city lights and billboards. This sort of simple fun is what Lamb enjoys, even as she ends up bleeding right through her sweater. In a scene echoing Juno, the film ends with Lamb back home, riding a bicycle, a child again after her venture into adulthood. Is it all too pat? Perhaps. But Cody is an old softy at heart. She creates these vulnerable women because she wants to protect them. Why else would she name the main character Lamb?
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Escape from Tomorrow puts me in mind of the great midnight movies of the early 1980s. Who knew someone could make one like this in 2013? It combines the drama of a family crumbling while on vacation at Disney World, with the kind of surreal comedy that reminded me of films like Repo Man and Brazil. It features some of the most nightmarish black and white cinematography since the early days of David Lynch (nicely done by Lucas Lee Graham), and a beautiful musical score by Abel Korzeniowski. Still, it's the kind of movie that baffles Hollywood, because it isn't made from any known formula and doesn't follow the rules. It starts with Jim (Roy Abramsohn) learning that he's lost his job. He happens to be in Disney World with his family at the time, but rather than ruin his family's fun, he gamely tries to have a good time. As he ventures onto the various rides and attractions, he's mesmerized by two teen French girls who seem to be following him. He also hallucinates that the Disney cartoon characters are giving him the evil eye.
Director/writer Randy Moore's Disney World is a humid pit, full of overweight rubes, selfish children, and rides that make you vomit. Jim even hears rumors of decapitations on rides. When Jim's daughter falls and cuts her knee, Jim brings her to a nurse who for some reason is on the verge of tears. Jim also seems to be losing an Oedipal battle to his son for his wife's affection. There's also a weird woman (Alison Lees-Taylor) who once worked at Disney World until she crushed a kid by hugging her too hard, and now seems to be a wicked witch.
What's best about Escape From Tomorrow is that it grows stranger with each scene, like a bizarre snowball, until the surreal seems perfectly logical in this world. The witchy woman seduces Jim, and later kidnaps his daughter. "I always give them back," she says. Meanwhile, Jim bumbles along, learns of a secret Disney World involving mind control and doppelgangers, and contracts something called "Cat Flu," a contagious disease that causes one to spit out fur balls. Abramsohn plays Jim perfectly, like Ray Romano trapped in Eraserhead. He and Lees-Taylor deserve awards, not Oscars, but something better. A new award, perhaps. I'll suggest "The Nance," in honor of Eraserhead star Jack Nance.
Escape From Tomorrow was filmed guerrilla style without Disney World's approval, and the organization briefly considered taking legal action. The group has since distanced itself from the movie. Considering some of the over-budgeted turds Disney has laid this year, the group should be proud to be associated with Escape From Tomorrow, a film that was inexpensive and dares to be unconventional. Disney could learn something from Randy Moore. Besides, Disney is just a backdrop. It could have been a MacDonald's, or Los Angeles, or any other place where the goal is to spend a lot of money and die with an idiot's grin on your face.