Return to Paradise - * * 1/2*

Return to Paradise is a drama based entirely on a key ethical dilemma. The dilemma itself is a potentially fascinating one, but the film doesn’t fully live up to its potential.

Sheriff, Tony and Lewis (Vince Vaughn, David Conrad and Joaquin Phoenix) are casual acquaintances. They met two years before while vacationing in Malaysia. Their days and nights were filled with rum, women and hashish. After their weeks in paradise, the three parted ways and lost contact.

Flash forward to the present day, when lawyer Beth Eastern (Anne Heche) arrives in New York to pay a visit on Sheriff and Tony. It seems that after the two of them left Malaysia, Lewis was apprehended with the remaining 104 grams of hashish, just enough to be classified as a drug dealer, and to be sentenced to death.

Beth is in New York to convince Sheriff and Tony to return with her to Malaysia. If they do, each man will be sentenced to three years in the Malaysian prison system. If they refuse, Lewis will be hanged in eight days…

Return to Paradise poses an intriguing ethical dilemma. Unfortunately, the way the film poses it leaves little doubt as to what the eventual resolution will be. It simply becomes a matter of waiting for the characters to come around to the film’s point of view.

Another of the film’s stumbling blocks is with the film’s lead character, Sheriff. Though he’s given a few minor introductory scenes in Malaysia, we are introduced to his character primarily through the moral dilemma. Vince Vaughn plays Sheriff with great ambivalence. Since we have no neutral ground with which to view his character, we never know what he’s really thinking.

David Conrad is mostly ignored as Tony, so we’re given even less insight into his character than Sheriff’s. Redeeming the cast, however, are Anne Heche and Joaquin Phoenix. Both give passionate, moving performances that show the heights to which Return to Paradise might have risen.

Still, there are some interesting ideas sprinkled around Return to Paradise. One subplot, involving Jada Pinkett Smith as a journalist who is investigating the story, ties in nicely with the overall theme of responsibility vs. self-interest. There is plenty of material throughout to spark an after-the-movie “what would you do” conversation.

Return to Paradise isn’t a bad film. It’s just one that doesn’t live up to its potential.

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