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NewCityNet Leo Ascending

"The Beach" is a site for sore eyes.

By Ray Pride

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  Stars gleam, especially when wet.

Leonardo DiCaprio, an eminently talented actor, is to water in his movies what Mel Gibson is to the bloody fight in which he almost gets killed in his productions: they can't stay away from it. Or perhaps not: Today's most popular actor across the globe has said that "The Beach," a dark anecdote about the search for paradise in a commercialized, dollar-crazed world, was his leap from teenybopper gold to adult admiration.

And while Danny Boyle's fourth feature doesn't have the audience-grabbing capacity of the Titanic—whatever will ever again?—it's stylish and reflective, even in its thinnest passages. Is that enough for audiences in 2000?

DiCaprio's edgy impatience fills out the tow-headed caricature he's asked to play, embodying both the esprit and naiveté of a privileged, Rough Guide-clutching twentysomething tramping commercial thoroughfares in search of almost out-of-the-way places along the roads of the Far East. In Bangkok, he meets up with Daffy (Robert Carlyle, who later haunts Richard's dreams like a madman out of "Apocalypse Now," which Boyle quotes from), a manic headcase who offers him a map to an illegal, near-unreachable island in a distant national park. Captivated by the smile of young French tourist Francoise (an underused Virginie Ledoyen), he impulsively asks Francoise and her boyfriend Etienne (Guillaume Canet) to join him on his adventure.

Boyle and writer John Hodge do an adept job of finding their thesis within Alex Garland's novel: the idea that modern generations are desperate to find an adventure outside the virtual cocoon of their media-drenched upbringing. In both "The Beach" and his second novel, "The Tesseract," Garland parcels out information in terse, stylish bits. But film is a more literal medium. People walk through stories and their motions are taken for (or mistaken for) "reality." Motivations remain as murky as some of the night photography. In the film, we're given almost none of Richard's background. Do we take him as Everyman or as a star embodying his many roles, as EveryLeo?

On the island, they discover a community of castaways-by-choice, led by Tilda Swinton's Sal. They share the lush rock with a band of marijuana farmers, and have negotiated an uneasy truce. Within the limits of the script's confines, DiCaprio excels at conveying the vigor of Richard's youth and delusions, particularly when he's given a mouth-tangle of exotic verbiage (listen to his too-proud recitation of how he dealt with a shark attack). Yet he is all too human. Richard is a lying, duplicitous, vainglorious shit who brings pain on the heads of a this band of lucky hippie-dippies who believe their community surpasses what lies outside. Yet they must travel back to the city at times.

Boyle and cinematographer Darius Khondji are in their element when Richard and Sal go for supplies. The city is a tropical "Blade Runner" set, filled with howl and whoosh, a gruesome video that represents the rest of "the whole fuckin' world," as his voice-over calls it.

Khondji's cinematography revels in a metalline grunge, with light as brassy as bad tap water. Boyle continues to demonstrate his interest in aural dreaminess, with layers of seductive music and a dialogue track that is looped to faultlessness, all crisp rumble of timbre clearer than the best of dreams. Angelo Badalamenti's score complements a selection of already-issued songs, such as Moby's "Hymn" plinking and murmuring as the beach is first revealed to them; then Brian Eno and John Cale's "Spinning Away" as the trio loll atop the glassy white perfection of the stretch of unspoiled sand. Like Michael Mann, Boyle is trying to suggest mood through color and sound as much as through camera placement and performance.

And the trippy visual imagery almost puts over the undernourished narrative. There's a wondrous scene when Richard looks through Francoise's camera viewfinder at the stars that she is photographing. The music is seductive trip-hop, and Boyle shows the blur of stars, the line of light, artifacts of a smiling Francoise blurring against the heavens, burning into Richard's heart and soul. There is also a lovely diversion when Richard and Francoise swim underwater by moonlight in pulsing clouds of blue-glow plankton. But these effects do not warm the general icy, diffident feel of the story.

It's far superior to the botched "A Life Less Ordinary," but one wishes Boyle were less reliant on the night-pulse of techno, the lysergic thrum of Walkman storytelling. There's a tender, sad ending that wraps up the themes and concerns in such a concise, wonderful way that you wonder how the muse escaped them in the latter half of the story. In the end, "The Beach" is a noisy movie about quiet places, like paradise, and the mind.

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