The timing of this film is noteworthy as well. Dicaprio at the time was the biggest movie star on the planet, basking in the wave of Titanic mania. Danny Boyle, who had made a huge splash with his 2nd film, Trainspotting, was reeling from the commercial failure of his 3rd effort, A Life Less Ordinary (another flawed diamond in the rough that we'll tackle another day). For the first time, Boyle left behind his leading man, Ewan McGregor, in favor of as close to a sure thing as anyone thought possible...LEO! It is also important to mention that the novel, The Beach, was written by Alex Garland and while John Hodge (writer of Boyle's first 3 films) did create the script for The Beach, Garland has been the wordsmith behind most of Boyle's subsequent work. It was a turning point in the lives of these key players and it was doomed to be more than a bit uneven for all these reasons. Leo wanted to be challenged as an actor and not be just another pretty face (something he hasn't physically been able to pull off while looking far too young, in my opinion, until the aforementioned The Departed). Danny Boyle, for all his willingness to make a crowd pleaser (as proven by last years Best Picture win for Slumdog Millionaire), picked material that has too many tonal changes, subtle social commentaries and way too much story for a 105 minute running time. So, you end up with a group of people all working with great passion on what ends up feeling like several movies in one.
The first quarter of the film introduces our protagonist, Richard (Dicaprio). He's the kind of post-collegiate, intrepid traveler who always gives me mixed feelings of admiration (for the free spirit quality) and irritation (with the naivety of youth, which as a 26 year old father of two already seems like a distant memory). He’s chasing “the experience” over in Thailand. We see him riding around town experiencing the extremes of local culture, drinking snake blood and opening himself up to whatever new sights, smells and sounds he can find. At his hotel he meets the other key players in this saga, a young french couple, Francoise and Etienne, and Richard's crazy neighbor Daffy (the brilliant Robert Carlyle, who, as Begbie helped make Boyle’s Trainspotting such a success and who does the best work of any performer in this film). One night, Daffy shares a joint with Richard through an opening near the ceiling that connects their rooms and proceeds to tell him about a secret beach, a paradise virtually untouched by the hands of man. He gives enough of an enticing teaser to capture our attention right along with Richard’s but leaves things on a more ominous note after the next day finds Daffy blowing his brains out and leaving a map behind for Richard. Fortunately, in a twist reminiscent of American Werewolf In London, when I was sad to see Griffin Dunne leave so early, this is not the last we'll see of Daffy.
Richard recruits the french couple to join him in finding this secret beach and they set off together, battling sharks and drug runners en route. What they find, as we enter the second phase of the film, is an island commune led by the icy Sal (as played by the extremely icy Tilda Swinton, who besides her lighthearted and warm Oscar acceptance speech has always struck me as some kind of monster because of how effective she is playing them in films like Burn After Reading, Michael Clayton, Vanilla Sky and of course this film, The Beach). They listen to terrible techno music (can the music business please rescind their offer to Moby??) and “live off the land” and it’s all just terribly beatific. Cracks in the surface begin slowly as Richard decides to disrupt the balance by stealing Francoise away from her well liked french boyfriend. We also call back to the first section of the movie as a new group of American Interlopers start getting a little too close to discovering the secret location and Richard starts spending more and more time isolated in the woods and going deeper into his own head.
Note to self: Anytime during a movie that you see the protagonists taking a happy go lucky group shot, you can count on seeing that photo still framed at the end of the movie as a reminder of how great it was once upon a time (The Untouchables and Boogie Nights immediately come to mind but I’m sure anyone reading this can think of several others). This movie tragically falls into that awful cliché and shortly after the dreaded “good times” photo things really start to unravel. Richard breaks up yet another couple’s relationship and before this can be resolved, one of the secondary beach bum characters is bitten by a shark and we are meant to start asking some serious moral and ethical questions as the group decides that it’s better to let him die slowly and painfully than to risk their precious hideaway being discovered if they take him to the mainland for proper treatment. Etienne is the one voice of reason and decides to care for the dying, gangrenous man. Elsewhere, Richard, off in the woods in exile, learns to fight off the most dangerous enemy he’s ever faced as a young, entitled American tourist…BOREDOM!!
There are some very subtle and clever nods to iconic war movies like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now and some hilarious moments where we see Richard’s P.O.V as he literally transforms his world into a video game within his mind. It’s very easy to be confused and or bored at this point in the film if you haven’t been paying attention to the tongue-in-cheek approach that’s just barely disguised under the surface of the whole proceeding. What they don’t spell out for you, the viewer, and what millions of teenage Dicaprio fans never expected back in the year 2000 is that you’re not supposed to like this guy Richard. Which is a bit tricky since, as stated in the start of this piece, most people tend to admire or at least understand that sort of nomadic chasing of new experiences. The point that I think they’re making here is to not lose sight of your humanity in the process. I think also that it is taking shots at the well earned clichés of American culture and American tourists whose fanny pack loving ways have been the bane of the international community for decades. So we laugh because it’s funny and we laugh because it’s true and we cringe just a little bit at how true it is of us as individuals.
It is with that bit of guilt in mind that I acknowledge that I’ve never read the book for this and probably won’t. Between a full time job, writing music, performing music and acting as band manager for two groups, spending time with my family and trying to maintain my cinematic obsessions throughout, reading anything more substantial than Entertainment Weekly and the occasional Stephen King book is a luxury I don't have. So, I’m one of "them" too, in a way (but for less selfish reasons if I may be so bold). I find it entirely plausible and relatable that Richard turns his jungle isolation into his own interior Vietnam action film. I don’t play videogames but can identify with the short attention span and constant overstimulation that has become the hallmark of my generation. Being aware of it and being able to laugh at it on screen doesn’t change my own implicit guilt. It does make me return to The Beach though, more often than a great many other (and arguably better) films that I’ve seen.
The voice over narration (which I assume is straight from the book) is brilliant and inspired writing throughout. Danny Boyle is always a dazzling filmmaker and this film is no exception, the plot and setting are unique, the plot twists are many and the way the story is told visually is quite striking and clever. On the other hand, Danny Boyle’s love of cheesy techno turns my stomach at times (seriously...Moby...that's quite enough out of you), the acting is consistently mediocre (except for Robert Carlyle’s little cameo as previously mentioned) and that conflict I mentioned between admiring these efforts in communal living to wanting to slap their smug and selfish young faces is unpleasant at times. Danny Boyle and Leo have gone on to prove that they have real staying power and I think are just beginning to hit their creative peaks.
So, maybe this film isn’t truly “the best movie you’ve never seen”. I’m just saying that its reputation is much worse than the product. The Beach has been unfairly panned as a bad film and it’s not that. It’s a memorable and ambitious failure with some great ideas and is worth at least a rental to see for yourself. Grade: B-