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by: Michael Dequina

After the global phenomenon that was Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio truly was the "King of the World" (sorry, James Cameron), having the newfound power to choose whatever follow-up project he wanted--and at any price. But much like his co-star Kate Winslet, DiCaprio has shunned obvious blockbuster efforts and instead opted for more uncommercial works--such as Woody Allen's Celebrity and now The Beach, a stylish and unconventional drama that certainly won't earn him much favor with his fanbase of screaming teenage girls.

That demographic may appreciate the fact that The Beach gives the twentysomething DiCaprio ample opportunity to show off his shockingly pre-pubescent physique. Such flesh-baring may lead one to think that Danny Boyle's adaptation of Alex Garland's novel is a glamour project, but it isn't. In fact, I don't think that young female audience will otherwise find much interest with the fairly dark story of DiCaprio's Richard, an American on vacation in Thailand, who sets out to find a legendary island paradise along with a French couple (Virginie Ledoyen and Guillaume Canet). They succeed, only to find a secret society led by the mysterious Sal (Tilda Swinton), who, after some initial trepidation, welcomes the newcomers into the exclusive and self-sufficient community, which is sort of a perpetual beach resort.

The message of The Beach does not take long to come clear; it is rather obvious that reality will ultimately creep in and shatter the delusion of such a utopian lifestyle. The romantic subplot, involving Richard and Ledoyen's Françoise, never really catches fire. That fact is partly due to the screenplay by longtime Boyle collaborator John Hodge, which doesn't quite establish strong character foundations on the page, hence making some of Richard's late character turns feel arbitrary.

However, The Beach is a less a film about its narrative than its style, and as he has in the past (excepting his last film, the disastrous-on-all-levels A Life Less Ordinary), Boyle is able to engage the audience with his style when the script falters. His forays into surrealism are especially inspired, such as a strange scene where Richard's jungle adventures literally turn into a video game. This scene was met with much derisive laughter from the audience with whom I saw the film, but it is actually a rather inventive way to show how immaturely and lightly he takes such a real and serious situation. Boyle is ably supported by cinematographer Darius Khondji, who makes The Beach as impossibly beautiful as it should be.

Adding immeasurably to The Beach's watchability is, indeed, DiCaprio. His teen idol status may be the primary reason he gets so much ink in the press now, but his talent will keep his name in the memory for years to come. The Beach is certain to fail at the box office (I can see the headlines now--"Leo's Post-Titanic Bellyflop"), but it further proves DiCaprio to be an interesting and boldly risk-taking actor--even if the risks don't always completely pay off.

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

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