Diablo Cody, the celebrity-gadfly screenwriter who penned Juno, gets a harsher rap than she deserves. Cody may stuff her characters’ mouths with a barrage of quipster banter, but she has a talent for stealth insight—smuggling a trenchant portrait of female friendship into the horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body or a sly auto-critique into her caustic character study Young Adult. But only those looking to make a case against the filmmaker will find much of value in Paradise, her misguided directorial debut, which crams all her worst instincts into one chronically unfunny comedy. Centered on Lamb, a perfect Christian girl (Julianne Hough) who loses her faith after emerging from a plane crash with third-degree burns, the film possesses no insights, stealth or otherwise—except perhaps that one of the side effects of surviving a plane crash is talking like Diablo Cody.
After telling off her congregation, in an outburst of blasphemy that shocks her mother (Holly Hunter) and father (Nick Offerman), Lamb flees her Footloose-style Montana town and jets to Las Vegas. Here she plans to indulge in the pleasures of the secular world—tallied onscreen, as she samples “firewater” and listens to “party jams”—but finds the transition into bad-girl living less natural than she’d hoped it would be. Maybe that’s because Lamb, as Cody’s written her, isn’t just sheltered; she’s a walking parody of red-state values, a princess so isolated by her home-school rearing that she doesn’t even have an email account. “My dad told me I should run and hide if I ever encounter a Muslim,” she chirps through voiceover—a mere taste of the film’s facetious culture-clash comedy, which deals in lazy potshots at God-fearing Americans. (Saved! looks subtle by comparison.) Lost in Sin City, Lamb eventually stumbles into the care of a couple guardian angels: Vegas bar-tainers William (Russell Brand) and Loray (Octavia Spencer), the latter of whom helpfully explains that she’s not a “Magical Negro,” largely to allay any audience fears that that’s exactly how Cody is deploying her.
Named for the Nevada town on which the Vegas strip actually lies, Paradise risks absolutely zilch. “This is so much worse than home,” Lamb eventually admits of her urban playground, but the movie never once makes Vegas nightlife look remotely dangerous or seedy. (That’s probably a product of Cody’s flat, anonymous direction, which should have audiences longing for the comparably crackerjack style of Juno and Young Adult director Jason Reitman.) Nor does William convince as a conflicted lothario, or Lamb as someone anyone would actually find repulsive; Cody assures that her heroine’s scar tissue is easily concealed, and nowhere near her face, so as not to risk making audiences uncomfortable. Even the jokes are wildly uneven: When Loray delivers a moody rendition of Radiohead’s “No Surprises,” and an old woman tells her husband she “thought she’d have more soul,” it’s like something out of an Adam Sandler comedy. Destined to please only Rock Of Ages fans who wished Hough and Brand had more screen time together, Paradise boasts the broadest, most saccharine tendencies of its writer and first-time director. In Cody terms, it’s a doodle that can’t be undid.