Beware the shrieking teenagers who saw Titanic ten or twelve times and have been conducting their own shipboard romance fantasies with Leonardo DiCaprio ever since. They will be massed and marching in Bombay-at-rush-hour numbers this week, maybe in Chinese-army numbers, and anyone over the age of seventeen who doesn't feel like getting trampled at the local multiplex would do well to stay home and watch I Love Lucy reruns on the boob tube. Because the word is out: Looking tan and fit, Leo takes his shirt off in the first reel of The Beach, and for the most part he remains topless for the next two hours. And if that doesn't immediately set fire to half a dozen box-office records, what would?
Actually, The Beach doesn't just feature the sight of DiCaprio's naked chest. It's about DiCaprio's naked chest. Except for a cameo appearance as a temperamental matinee idol in Woody Allen's Celebrity (a movie seen by exactly eleven teenagers worldwide), the temperamental matinee idol has kept himself off the screen for almost two years. Now that he's finally back, it's his body -- not his mind -- that his mesmerized young fans are going to crave, and director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) is more than happy to comply.
Oh, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge and perhaps DiCaprio himself would probably insist that The Beach is really concerned with more important things -- like man's eternal search for paradise and the hazards of actually finding it; utopian dreams colliding with worldly realities; even the dictatorial impulses of communal leaders. Combining the baser elements of Robinson Crusoe and Lord of the Flies with the romantic inanities of Blue Lagoon, this hackneyed trouble-in-the-Garden-of-Eden story features DiCaprio as Richard, an American tourist supposedly searching for perfection in exotic Thailand. After being given a hand-drawn map by a drug-addled Englishman named Daffy (Robert Carlyle), who then promptly kills himself, Richard and two French fellow travelers, Etienne and FranÇoise (Guillaume Canet and Virginie Ledoyen) make their way to a beautiful secret island presumably untrod upon by anyone in plaid Bermuda shorts from Omaha.
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Unfortunately (for us, and for the movie), it has already been discovered by three dozen or so idealistic young fantasists from assorted European countries, who have formed an exclusive little commune where the predominant social value seems to be, well, volleyball. The first half of the movie tries very hard to convince us that this is the ultimate heavenly hideaway, but the only ostensible difference between it and Club Med seems to be an acute tampon shortage and a lack of alkaline batteries to power the residents' Game Boys. Not only that, there are marijuana farmers armed with automatic weapons in the next valley, man-eating sharks in the lagoon and, at the commune itself, a leader named Sal (Tilda Swinton) who clearly has fascist leanings. She's a sexual blackmailer and a tyrant.
Like we said, The Beach is really about Leo's nicely tanned pecs. Its social philosophy, dumbed down from the rather spooky Alex Garland novel from which it's adapted, is strictly for thirteen-year-olds. Richard's insights, for instance, include the assertion that travel "is the search for experience, the quest for something different," and that the way to get the most from travel is to "never resist the unfamiliar." Wow. If you're not blown away by that, just wait until things start to get rough, island-wise. Personal conflicts actually arise among the shaggy young utopians, and when two of their number are attacked by a shark, the whole social fabric begins to unravel. As for our Richard, he takes to living in isolation in the jungle, reverts into a kind of wild cat and starts having paranoid hallucinations about war and video games and the lunatic who gave him the map. This is Heart of Darkness (by way of Apocalypse Now) whittled down to the mere germ of the idea, although these filmmakers -- who after collaborating on Trainspotting have obviously gone commercial -- clearly think they're Daniel Defoe, John Milton, William Golding and Francis Ford Coppola all rolled up into one and set loose amid the palm trees of a Thai island called Phi Phi Leh.
But consider the level of discourse. "Desire is desire," Richard muses, hot as a sunburn now for the French girl. "Wherever you go, the sun will not bleach it, nor the tide wash it away." This is the kind of thing sweetly melancholy sixteen-year-olds will probably be repeating to each other in school cafeterias for months to come, but it doesn't cut it in grownup company. Of course, that's not what matters here. What matters is that a lean, good-looking heartthrob and two nice-looking French kids and a couple dozen of their onscreen friends get to hang out in their shorts for two hours, bathed in sunshine and fueling old adolescent fantasies about the perfect beach and the perfect life before injecting every fervid young mind out in the audience with a little social studies lesson about how things are not always what they seem. Meanwhile, moviegoers aren't quite done with the whole Robinson Crusoe thing. Later this year, a FedEx employee played by Tom Hanks will be marooned in the South Pacific in a picture called Castaway.
But for now, all those hordes of dewy-eyed teenage girls can revel in their fantasies about Leonardo DiCaprio. He's mired here in an obvious and clumsy mess of a movie. But he looks good with his shirt off, and in the end, that's all that really counts.