Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Without a Paddle

Last night's episode of BIG BROTHER featured corporate synergy at its finest (or most brazen, depending on your view). The CBS network program devoted part of the show to a promo for Paramount's WITHOUT A PADDLE. Since the houseguests can't listen to music except for the Head of Household's CD and aren't able to watch TV, they are starved for any diversion. Enter the reward challenge for a private screening of the film starring Seth Green and Matthew Lillard.

This is the best they could do? WITHOUT A PADDLE? Last year's challenge winners got to see RUNAWAY JURY, which wasn't exactly great shakes but at least it wasn't something the studio probably released to clear the shelf. Plus, the houseguests got to see that farther in advance of its release. What, were they afraid that this year's BIG BROTHER contestants would build bad buzz for the film, which opens this Friday? Paramount's September opener SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW is in need of a good push, so a well-placed plug on the show would have been better served. Or maybe the execs think that the BIG BROTHER viewer is the targeted WITHOUT A PADDLE audience.

Of course, the houseguests lapped it up, even though being forced to see it is more of a punishment than a reward. Then again, when your other option is thinking about the situation in the house and becoming more paranoid, maybe a bad comedy is a retreat.

WITHOUT A PADDLE (Steven Brill, 2004)

Three childhood friends set out on an adventure to find D.B. Cooper’s treasure in WITHOUT A PADDLE, an alleged comedy steeped in the Indiana Jones films and DELIVERANCE.

As kids Tom, Jerry, Dan, and Billy imagined themselves to be the heroes they saw in the movies, whether it was Harrison Ford’s wisecracking archaeologist or the Ghostbusters. Ten years out of college life hasn’t duplicated those dreams. Dan (Seth Green) runs his own medical practice, but he’s too shy to ask out attractive women and has developed bizarre phobias, like the fear of cellophane. Jerry (Matthew Lillard) is a corporate man whose mind is on surfing rather than spreadsheets. Tom (Dax Shepard) has been in trouble with the law and looks to be headed nowhere fast.

The guys reunite when they learn that Billy was killed in a parasailing accident. Going by the pictures at his funeral, he lived life like it was a Mountain Dew commercial. While reminiscing at their old tree house hangout, the guys come across a box that contains important items they squirreled away. Billy left behind a map detailing where he believed they could find the remaining $194,200 famed skyjacker D.B. Cooper stole. He had wanted everyone to go on a trip the previous summer, presumably to find the money, but it never materialized. In memory of their friend Tom, Jerry, and Dan get a canoe and head upriver to fulfill Billy’s wish.

In sending the guys to a backwoods town for a canoe trip and having a couple hillbillies chase them, the connection to DELIVERANCE is unavoidable. Burt Reynolds even turns up as a scraggly bearded mountain man. No one squeals like a pig, although the half-clad guys experience gay panic when circumstances force them to cuddle so they won’t freeze. Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones trilogy is a touchstone, although more in spirit and derring-do than in any plot similarities.

WITHOUT A PADDLE also liberally quotes from 80s pop culture. A chase scene evokes RETURN OF THE JEDI. Culture Club and .38 Special songs pump on the soundtrack. There’s just something pathetic about 30-year-olds feeling nostalgic and thinking that life has passed them by. Isn’t that what your forties are for?

Green, who has shown promise elsewhere, is slumming here. A sloppy, lowest common denominator comedy, WITHOUT A PADDLE is exactly the type of project one would expect to see Lillard in. Apparently Reynolds has burned through the last of the renewed appreciation he won with BOOGIE NIGHTS because he hasn’t had a choice role since. Ethan Suplee, the second in command hillbilly Elwood to Abraham Benrubi‘s Dennis, gets a few laughs from constantly barking out “How do you like me now?!” as if he’s Toby Keith’s long lost, pot-farming brother.

The Oregon forests give WITHOUT A PADDLE a gorgeous backdrop, but the film is unattractively photographed. The image is flat, and some of the wide shots even look out of focus. Director Steven Brill isn’t noted for visual panache but for having helmed two of Adam Sandler’s worst vehicles, LITTLE NICKY and MR. DEEDS. Brill also wrote the pro wrestling comedy READY TO RUMBLE, which starred David Arquette. WITHOUT A PADDLE isn’t a departure in quality from those stink bombs. It has a MATRIX bullet-time joke, for Pete’s sake! Hasn’t the expiration date run out on that yet?

Aside from a deserved jab at Creed, WITHOUT A PADDLE is funniest when it takes itself seriously as a message movie. The guys learn the importance of friendship and marriage over money. That’s all well and good, but the platitudes are hard to swallow when Matthew Lillard is finding self-actualization amid gags featuring dogs getting stoned and hillbillies having bags of crap dropped on them.

Grade: D

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