She swung from a stripper’s pole into the heart of Hollywood and won Hollywood’s heart with the screenplay Juno, for which she captured the Academy Award. Diablo Cody was the kind of overnight sensation Tinseltown loves to create and talk about.
Juno was a good movie, which, above all, captured Cody’s unique voice as a writer. I say Cody’s voice, for the characters in Juno rarely spoke for themselves. I understand why she won an Academy Award and I did enjoy the movie, but the script seems to violate one of the basic, Screenwriting 101 rules—never have all your characters speak with the same voice. But speak this way they did, the writer quite obviously talking through them.
The eponymous, main character, Juno, is a 15-year old girl who speaks fluently on topics as wide ranging as punk rock from the 1970s, the classics, and psychology. I couldn’t take her seriously, realizing this was the screenwriter’s voice more than a fully formed fictional character. Still, the hyper-stylized dialogue provided just enough verisimilitude to overshadow any shortcomings in believability. More on this later…
Notwithstanding my reservations, Juno was a hit, and Cody’s career was launched. Other movies and television shows followed, Cody’s star ever-rising. The trajectory of her career inevitably headed toward directing, and her first effort in the big chair is Paradise. I don’t believe it will have a theater-run (available on DVD and Blu-ray on November 12) and rightly so. It’s a mess.
The movie is billed as Cody’s directorial debut, and she handles that role competently enough, but there is nothing about her direction that stands out. A talented grad-student could have equaled what I saw, and I don’t believe she is an auteur in the making. One might understand it is her first attempt at directing and look past that because it’s in the screenplay where one expects Cody to shine. Unfortunately, the script is the real problem with Paradise.
The story follows a young, sheltered, Christian woman from Montana, Lamb Mannerheim, who is terribly burned in a plane accident. After rejecting God and her upbringing, she travels to Las Vegas to see and experience everything she was told was sinful. Paradise feels like the kind of concept Hollywood would go for, a put-down of fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity. But there’s the rub: Paradise fails to go any deeper than this broadside and comes off as cheap. If you want to see Bible-thumpers slammed, you should read any number of left-wing blogs or websites. In this movie, however, it feels as if the creative team didn’t know what to do or say after the pitch phase of development.
Despite my misgivings about Juno, its structure and pace were undeniably excellent. Paradise is the opposite, with a structure that is rushed, characters and character relationships that are inauthentic and hard to believe, and dialogue, which, though it may have worked in Juno, feels shopworn now.
Directed by: Diablo Cody
Written by: Diablo Cody
Starring: Julianne Hough, Russell Brand, Octavia Spencer, Holly Hunter
As with Juno, Cody shows too much of herself in the characters of Paradise. Lamb is supposed to be an utter naïf about the world, unaware of Disneyworld or vice of any kind. Yet in one instance she lets out a witty crack about prostitutes in Vegas who come to your hotel room as the equivalent of Chinese food delivered to your house. If her upbringing was as xenophobic and cloistered as it is made out to be, what would she know about Chinese food delivery? Another time, Lamb laughs at a joke about the death of Keith Moon. Again, how would she have knowledge of that? The character Juno was precocious and it could be believed she might wax rhapsodic. Lamb Mannerheim is at once a virginal innocent and a seen-it-all cynic; it doesn’t add up.
I’m guessing that Cody and the producers of Paradise thought casting recognizable and talented players such as Julianne Hough, Russell Brand, Octavia Spencer, and Holly Hunter might masque weaknesses in the script. Unfortunately, this only seems to add to the confusion as they struggle to act their way out of situations that never feel right. Paradise is the textbook example of good actors being unable to save bad writing.
And then there is the physical appearance of Lamb herself. We see glimpses of burns on parts of her body and are ever-reminded about her condition by a red blotch on her neck. However, her face and vibrant, golden hair are unscathed. To me, this is a cop out. It would have been much more of a challenge to have us like Lamb and be invested in her fate if her visage is disfigured, a la Mask or The Elephant Man. As it stands, she is cute in the face which allows her to flirt pointlessly with Russell Brand for sixty minutes.
If Paradise had been a run-of-the-mill indy film, it might not warrant a critique this lengthy, but given the Cody name I anticipated it eagerly. It does not live up to her earlier work, and I’m not sure it bodes well for her career as a director. I hope to see her rebound from this with the kind of work that originally captured filmdom’s attention.