Practically Purgatory: Diablo Cody’s Directorial Debut Is Not Ready for the Big Time

A relentlessly talky script that ties itself in knots

Julianne Hough in the quirky comedy Paradise.
Julianne Hough in the quirky comedy Paradise.

In the good old days, an empty, unconventional but overblown idea with no commercial future like Paradise would never have been green-lighted by a crafty studio executive like Louis B. Mayer or Jack Warner. Times have changed. Today, if an experimental novice like Diablo Cody wins an Academy Award for a screenplay (which she did for the surprise, low-budget hit Juno), somebody will surely grab her next movie, even if it’s written in pencil on a roll of Bounty. Paradise is the first film Ms. Cody has both written and directed. It isn’t ready.

Bound into an ugly body cast of surgical tape, lovely Julianne Hough, who materialized from nowhere via Dancing With the Stars, plays a young woman named (are you ready?) Lamb. Disciplined, innocent and sheltered from real life by her conservative, religiously obsessed parents in a hick town in Montana, Lamb suddenly experiences a dramatic life change when she survives a near-fatal plane crash that burns 90 percent of her body to cinders. “I could smell burning flesh but couldn’t actually feel anything and landed in the parking lot of a Kroger,” she says in an annoying series of voice-overs that dominate the script. Winning millions in insurance payoffs, she knows the community expects a “share the wealth” reward, and the church anticipates a big offering in the collection plate. But Lamb shocks them speechless when she takes over the pulpit and announces, “There is no God!” It’s just the beginning of a journey to experience what the world has to offer. “I’m going to Las Vegas where I plan to gamble and dance and drink alcohol and frolic with homosexuals,” she declares. And she does, wrapped in a surgical support hose to cover her scars, with an L.L.Bean tote bag full of cash. Let the sin begin.

Actually, the sin comes in short doses, covering no more than one night. She arrives in “The People’s Republic of Bad Choices,” looking for life. In a saloon called the Hi-Lo Room, she finds two friends—a bartender named William (creepy Russell Brand) and a drunken, cynical cabaret singer with no talent named Loray (a perfect Octavia Spencer). The title Paradise refers to a section of Vegas with a roller coaster, a fake Eiffel Tower, mobs of tourists from St. Louis who lose their mortgages on one-armed bandits, a gang of wayward wack jobs who introduce Lamb to her first collision with pop culture, and processed cheese.

The movie goes nowhere, and Ms. Cody’s screenplay is relentlessly talky while standing still. Before the night ends, Lamb drinks too much, gives away most of her money to a prostitute in a ladies’ room and runs out of her pain medication. The Vegas-style children of the night spend so much time knocking themselves out trying to be clever and insightful that they end up making very little sense. When Lamb eats chocolate, they call her a “confectionary Hitler.” A lot of words, but what do they mean? Nothing but a lot of verbiage from a precocious writer with plenty to learn about how to make movies. The actors are wasted, especially Holly Hunter, who no longer looks anything like Holly Hunter used to look, as Lamb’s mother.

Everyone is forgettable, but I did like Ms. Spencer’s preposterous definition of a “magical Negro” as “a narrative convention in which a black person uses her special lack of wisdom to help a white person in need. We learned all about it in class—Ghost, Green Mile, Bagger Vance—all magical Negroes.” I know. It makes no more sense than anything else in this wayward, misguided film, but sometimes it’s nice to hear the English language spoken in a movie that isn’t dominated by the F-word. By the way, for reasons nobody bothers to explain, Las Vegas is played by New Orleans. Go figure.

Written by Diablo Cody
Directed by Diablo Cody
Starring Julianne Hough, Nick Offerman and Holly Hunter
Running time 86 min.
Rating: 2/4

Practically Purgatory: Diablo Cody’s Directorial Debut Is Not Ready for the Big Time