Having made her name as a purveyor of sassy witticisms (or irritatingly precious quips, depending on your perspective) and somewhat over-the-top explorations of female experience with screenplays like Juno and Jennifer’s Body, Diablo Cody plays it surprisingly tame with her first effort behind the camera. To be sure, the setup of Paradise—goody-goody Montana Christian loses her faith, then jets off to Vegas to learn about life—is rife with opportunities for indulgence in all sorts of pop-cultural riffing and easy fish-out-of-water observations. And indeed, the film’s opening scene, in which the fatuously named Lamb (Julianne Hough), having survived a plane crash, albeit with horrible burns all over her body, addresses her church service and shocks the congregation by declaring “There is no God,” shows little interest in avoiding the sort of easy condescension that bodes very poorly for this pilgrim’s progress to come.
But fortunately, Cody opts instead for a surprisingly sweet and generally irony-free tale of self-discovery. There are a few pot shots at Vegas idiocy and a scene in which a drunk Lamb nearly gets taken advantage of by a pair of douchebags, but mostly the filmmaker goes light on the ill-natured sass. Newly arrived at a saloon where she takes the first drink of her life, Lamb befriends edgy, but sweet bartender William (Russell Brand, doing his usual shtick) and edgy but sweet entertainer Loray (Octavia Spencer), who steer our lamb in the right direction. As she tries and then rejects the typical Vegas pastimes, boozing, gambling, etc., our heroine searches for her own way of life, something that’s halfway between Sin City excess and total religious repression.
Paradise smartly avoids the sort of cynical hijinks that characterize the majority of Vegas-set flicks, though it can’t come up with anything more compelling to place in its stead. Instead, this surprisingly punchless movie offers up blandly edifying encounters and sentimental bonding and more or less calls it a day. The worst of these scenes is a lengthy sob session between Lamb and a prostitute (Kathleen Rose Perkins) in a club bathroom which tweaks but still embraces the old cliché of the hooker existing to serve the nonsexual needs of the hero/heroine. And while the film does evince some interest in illustrating the travails of Vegas service workers, it’s clear that they’re only there to serve the interests of our angelically blond lead. While Loray, a part-time film student, explains the concept of the magical negro to Lamb and insists that she has no interest in fulfilling that role, she more or less does exactly that, giving the younger woman just the tips she needs to achieve her self-discovery. But what Cody ignores is that simply offering up a self-critique doesn’t excuse a film from indulging in the thing that it’s critiquing.