Lamb Mannerhelm (Julianne Hough) is a beautiful 21-year-old Christian woman living in a sheltered, conservative small town in Montana with her parents. After a horrible plane crash she miraculously survives her faith is shaken. She has to come to terms with the fact that her body will be forever disfigured, due to severe burn injuries. Lamb decides to leave her hometown and go to Las Vegas to do all the things her church and family forbade her. On her mission to Sin City she meets William (Russell Brand), a charming British bartender and Loray (Octavia Spencer) an aspiring filmmaker slash nightclub singer who become her unofficial guides. Soon however Lamb realizes that an excessive lifestyle, the polar opposite from what she was used to, is no fun either. Maybe not everything her parents taught her was as bad as she thought. Maybe she belongs more to Montana than Nevada. And maybe she’s not as perfect as she saw herself.
Diablo Cody‘s directorial début is a funny, charming and heartwarming film about religion, family and introspection. Paradise is a genuinely sweet and inspirational story told in a very mature and non-judgmental way. As you would expect from Cody, the script is witty, filled with pop cultre references and improbable idioms. The whole movie could be seen as a Job meets Prodigal Son type of story. Once more Cody draws from archetypal narratives to build her own and set it in the present day, with a timely message. Looking at how poorly the film was received by critics and general audiences I can’t help but think it was completely misunderstood or purposely panned, because of its message and/or director. In a male dominated industry women filmmakers have it extra hard to make their voice heard. Cody herself recounts how she felt a great deal of pressure when making Paradise.
Few Hollywood films portray Christians in a realistic, non-ridiculing and balanced way. I was surprised to see how Cody nails the legalistic mindset of many Christian communities, while still leaving room for love and understanding. In Paradise superficial Vegas party animals and narrow-minded Christians fanatics are shown as two extremes. While most moviegoers have no problems with Christians being vilified in popular culture (much like the Jews in pre-nazi Germany), they don’t seem as open-minded when it comes to positive or at the very least more realistic, thoughtful and thought-provoking portrayals. Sadly, Cody’s considerate depiction of a Christian is probably what must have angered and alienated most people, who only proved to be just as about as tolerant as the people they love to hate.
While the film is not always subtle and some of Lamb’s reactions to worldly costumes seem exaggerated, they serve to make a point. Lamb’s high & mighty attitude, as if she was some sort of superior perfect being, proves to be just as irritating as the seemingly complete amoral people surrounding her. She will have to reconsider her own values and realize she is just as prejudiced as the people who make fun of her for her outdated wardrobe choices. By meeting two Vegas residents who turn out to be good people, she discovers how appearances aren’t everything. Even a prostitute can give you life advice, just as long as you don’t think you’re somehow better than them. Even if Paradise sounds like a complete departure from the depressing tones of Young Adult (one of my favorite films), there are still recurring themes, characters and structural semblances however building towards a much more upbeat finale.
Aside from great screenwriting abilities, Cody proves to be a solid actor’s director, managing to get great performances out of everyone involved. I was especially impressed by Russell Brand, an actor I always disliked, but showed some range and depth for the first time. Not only did he give a career best performance, but he also marks one of the film’s highlights. Another enjoyable aspect was the playful score by Rachel Portman, that always fit the scene perfectly and set the right tone, even in the quieter parts. While I loved the more serious parts of the film and they were necessary, I felt that they could have maybe been edited more tightly to keep the film’s pacing going. Last but definitely not least, I liked this film for being presenting us with not one but two strong, complex, layered female characters that are as far from cliché and stereotypical as it gets. Once more I applaud Cody’s writing, but also Julianne Hough and Octavia Spencer for their fearless performances and no, you don’t need to show your skin to be called fearless.
Rating on First Viewing
(on my laptop)
7.5 out of 10