In Alex Garland’s spookily great 1997 novel, a 26-year-old English backpacker named Richard discovers a utopian society of fellow Gen-Xers on a secret island off Thailand. He and a cool French couple, Francoise and Etienne, settle easily into the beach’s alt.civilization for a while, glassy-eyed on Game Boys or high on pot, living off the land like lords and ladies of the flies. But malaise lurks in this 20th-century paradise – how could it not, in a lotusland so near to the ghosts of Vietnam – and the horror, the horror that builds in Garland’s clear prose as moral guideposts vanish is gripping.
The Scottish ”Trainspotting” team of screenwriter John Hodge, producer Andrew Macdonald, and director Danny Boyle intermittently juice and gun ”The Beach” with their scattershot blend of hyperrealism and hallucinatory imagery; they also garble and dilute the story’s narrative power by resetting the book’s machinery. To accommodate star Leonardo DiCaprio, Richard is now a hey-man American, more wide-eyed and inarticulate, less reflective and analytical. (Richard’s voice-over means to suggest acquired wisdom but more often sounds dim: ”You hope and you dream, but you never believe that something’s gonna happen for you.” Deep, dude.)
Thwarting ticket sales to DiCaprio’s rabid prepubescent fan base with an R rating, tepid sexual subplots have been added – between Richard and Francoise (French sylph Virginie Ledoyen), and between Richard and the commanding woman who presides over the community (”The War Zone”’s Tilda Swinton, who, with her remarkable Dutch master’s visage, always looks coolly in control).
Built to showcase Boyle’s cagey rock & roll aesthetic and structured for an audience more familiar with MTV’s ”Road Rules” than with Joseph Conrad’s ”Heart of Darkness,” the movie lurches from event to event; there’s no time on screen for the subtle, unsettling shifts in group dynamics to creep up on you unawares as they do in Garland’s writing. There’s too much the director wants to fit in: a shark attack; a massacre in a marijuana field; a snazzy but isolated set piece in which Richard, assuming the stealthy, guerrilla ways of a videogame hero, is seen as a collection of pixels and computerized movements.
Filled with attractive supporting players and trained on DiCaprio’s Backstreet Boy beauty, ”The Beach” sets its default tone at ”Beach Blanket Bingo”; there are moments, particularly when Richard is letting loose a vigorous string of expletives, when the actor looks happy as a vacationer at Club Med, buying beers with beads and vowing never to wear a sports jacket again. (Ledoyen, thin as a silvery sardine, looks less happy; having gone to the trouble of putting her between two men, ”Jules et Jim”-like, the filmmakers give her very little to do. Guillaume Canet, as Etienne, doesn’t register at all.)
But I don’t think cute is what Leo DiCaprio spent all that time weighing job offers for. ”I tried to remember the person I used to be,” Richard narrates. ”As long as I stayed here, I’d never know him.” As a book, ”The Beach” offers the option of diving deep. As a movie, it sticks too close to the shoreline.