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by: Michael Dequina

Give up three years of your life or let a friend hang. That is the moral dilemma facing two young men in Return to Paradise, a largely intriguing drama whose by-the-numbers paces are elevated to a higher level by the strong acting ensemble.

Sheriff (Vince Vaughn), Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix), and Tony (David Conrad) meet and bond during a month-long vacation in Malaysia, where they engage in all the pleasures "paradise" offers them: women, booze, and especially cheap hashish. When the month expires, Sheriff and Tony return home, leaving Lewis, who stays--in a not completely convincing plot point--to study endangered orangutans. Two years later, Sheriff and Tony, both in New York, learn from attorney Beth Eastern (Anne Heche) that Lewis has spent the ensuing years in a Malaysian prison, awaiting hanging for drug possession. According to Beth, if both Sheriff and Tony return to Malaysia and share responsibility for the hash, Lewis's life would be spared. In turn, however, they would also have to serve, along with Lewis, three years of hard time.

It's an intriguing moral dilemma, but with the unfortunate title Return to Paradise (the film's original, comparatively less snappy title was Force Majeure, the name of the 1990 French film on which it is loosely based), the decision that Sheriff and Tony arrive at appears to be a foregone conclusion, and director Joseph Ruben's slack pacing of Wesley Strick and Bruce Robinson's competent script does not add much in terms of suspense. Thus the effectiveness of the piece is reliant on the actors, and it is their effort that elevates Return to Paradise into something special. The slick, selfish Sheriff follows a predictable character arc, but his evolution is made natural and involving by the charismatic Vaughn. He shares a nice rapport with Heche, who, after displaying her flair for light comedy earlier this summer in Six Days, Seven Nights, shows she has strong dramatic abilities to match. As touching as she is, the emotional linchpin of the film is Phoenix, who creates a highly sympathetic and tragic figure with a minimum of screen time. Of the cast, Jada Pinkett Smith comes off the least impressively, but that's mostly due to her shallowly written and developed character, M.J. Major, an ambitious reporter bent on creating an sensational international incident with Lewis's case.

Return to Paradise is not a great film, but its weighty concerns and the care and craft with which they are addressed make it a diverting dramatic oasis in the substance-parched late summer movie season.

RATING: *** 1/2 (out of *****)


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