Given the weight Leonardo DiCaprio must carry on his narrow shoulders, it’s too bad The Beach couldn’t have arrived a year earlier with the fanfare accorded Kate Winslet in Hideous Kinky. Which is to say, none. Both DiCaprio and his velveteen costar escaped the searing heat of their 1997 Titanic fame by choosing follow-up projects as far away from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as their passports would allow. But while Winslet quickly and quietly alit in Morocco for Hideous Kinky, the pocket-size travel diary of a young woman attempting to submerge her ego in an exotic, drug-blurred culture, DiCaprio partied publicly and dithered conspicuously over which project might best free him from the teenybopper celebrity that apparently imprisoned him. He then signed on for The Beach — the story of a young man who alights in Thailand attempting to submerge his ego in an exotic, drug-blurred culture.
The PR caravan that followed the star to Southeast Asia might suggest The Beach is a wild post-Titanic leap overboard that finds DiCaprio going outrageously native. In fact, it’s a movie no bigger in ambition than Hideous Kinky, conveying only occasionally the trancey energy of the book on which it’s based. 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 picture 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. For 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.