Diablo Cody's 'Paradise' Proves She's Got More to Give
The first few minutes of Diablo Cody's directorial debut, Paradise, are rife with moments that viewers have come to know and love from the Juno scribe. Quippy tiffs, observational cuts and jabs, and a story of extraordinary circumstances centering on Lamb, a formerly religious 21-year-old woman who tries to find herself in Las Vegas following a horrific plane accident. It has moments of charming sweetness, and the casting is pretty spectacular to boot: You've got Nick Offerman and his lack of a mustache (hilarious-nightmare-inducing), Julianne Hough as the saccharinely perfect but religiously naïve Lamb, Octavia Spencer as the smart and stubborn Loray, and Russell Brand at his Brandiest best as bartender William. And that's to say nothing of Holly Hunter. It's a film you really want to like — at least, when you're a fan of Cody's work — especially after hearing Cody, Spencer, and Hough talk about it at a press conference in Los Angeles last week.
"This was my first time directing anything," Cody explained. And it shows: what's missing is the zippy, tightened feel of previous Cody works: something to electrify it, rather than after-school-specialize it. The progression and movement does nothing more than plod the story along pleasantly enough, rather than pull the audience in. But her lack of experience at the helm is to be expected. "I think I realized that there’s never going to be a right time, so I just decided to do it." Considering it was her first go at the whole thing, it's not a bad job at all.
And, it seems, her whole experience was very much in line with Lamb's MO: it's now or never — life is for living, after all —so better to dive right in rather than let other people live your dreams for you. And if you're not a fan of warm-fuzzy sentiments, the film might not be for you, as there are many moments of such that punctuate much of the film, and pull the viewer farther away from viewing both sides of the coin and keeps you firmly in Lamb's pocket.
But that's not to say it's all clichés and burn jokes — like stated before, it's not a bad film. Russell Brand is at his Brandiest: the off-handedly hyper-intelligent ladykiller that he is, William tends to Lamb throughout the entirety of the film. But the whole thing felt as if it were stifled: either by self-doubt or some bigwig executive, trying to keep the more gruesome realities of Lamb's condition more palatable.
Which was obvious when Cody faced the question about Lamb's burns and how hidden they were throughout the film — a point of frustration for many a viewer, no doubt, when you consider the severity of Lamb's situation, and how we're supposed to believe these hardships.
"Honestly, if I'd had my druthers, they would be [more exposed]," explained Cody. "It's very hard to — how do I put this? — there are a lot of people who are more interested in making a commercial film and it's hard to put a girl on a poster who is disfigured."
It was at that moment that Hough piped up matter-of-factly with, "People don't want to look." Which, to be fair, is not an inaccurate statement (as much as it clearly pained Hough and Cody when discussing Lamb's burns), but it no doubt runs against the grain of everything that Cody wants to do in her writing.
"Up until — even into the color correction process — it was a conversation and sometimes an argument, because I wanted to take it as far as I could," said Cody. And we can't help but feel like the film would've benefitted from more of Cody's vision than less.
But no matter to all of that, because there's also Octavia Spencer, who embeds herself into the film as a fully realized person. A female character who is interesting, flawed, insightful, and just a little bit crazy (but in a good way). Loray isn't just a "magical negro" (a term coined by Spike Lee in 2001) either — a trope she strips from the table from the onset. Loray is not inwardly or outwardly disabled, she is not discriminated against. She has a past and she serves herself first rather than risking it all and sacrificing herself to save this particular white protagonist.
Which is yet another shining spot in this film: the character of Loray evolves, and her pop culture knowledge doesn't feel out of place, given that she's a currently enrolled film student. It was a point of reference that Cody brushed off quickly, stating, "The fact that she said, 'I'm not a magical negro' disqualifies Loray from being a magical negro." Spencer explained it more clearly, in that, "Loray goes on a journey. She grows through the film, just like Lamb. Magical negroes don’t grow. They stay the same, and exist solely to help."
It's no surprise we were left wanting more of Loray, given the strength of Spencer's performance and Cody's characterization of her. It's always a good sign when the audience is left curious to know what a character's life looked like before, during, and after the time documented on screen.
Ultimately, the film unfolds in ways that feel a bit expected: Lamb's trip to Las Vegas is filled with whimsical takes on the idea of sinning it up after coming into heaps of money in an über-religious and devout family. It sets you up, hoping for a roasting of religion and the perceived morality of those with such ideals versus those who live a bit, well, freer, but ends up feeling more like a kumbaya project instead. Call us cynical if you must, but there's something about a film vocalizing a polarizing opinion that excites us, regardless if it's a stance we agree with or not.
But, from Paradise's humble beginnings, it's easy to see that as Cody continues to delve into directing, she's going to only get better. And that's a certain kind of nirvana worth waiting for.
Paradise is in theaters today, Friday October 18, 2013, as well as iTunes and Video on Demand.