The world, or a good part of it, has been waiting for Leonardo DiCaprio's return, and "The Beach" is his first film since "Titanic." The good news is that he is still a skillful, thoughtful actor. The not-so-good news is that "The Beach" is a sad letdown, a vaporous youth-film with a dreadful script and hit-and-miss direction, about a young man who, looking for paradise, gets involved in a grownup life that for the most part goes over his head; and the film, instead of insights, gives us nothing but long looks and poses. The dialogue is so flat and predictable that we wait for lines to catch up with us.
DiCaprio is the young American Richard (no one in the film has a last name), in his mid-twenties, looking for an adventure, a moment of savoring the exotic life in Thailand. In his Bangkok hostel his next-door neighbor is Daffy (Robert Carlyle, giving an unspeakably overwrought performance), who just before slashing his wrists leaves a map to paradise taped to Richard's door. What is paradise? It's a secluded beach on an offshore island that only a few select adventurers can get to, which for the purposes of the film apparently means Richard. He sets out with his two French friends, Francoise and Etienne, and by dint of bus, boat, and freestyle swim they arrive at the island.
But wait: They're at the wrong end of the island, and must make their way through a huge field of cultivated marijuana and its armed guards, then leap a waterfall before they arrive at the right end and are welcomed by a couple of dozen gorgeous models, I mean adventurers like themselves. The roost is ruled by Tilda Swinton as Sal, whose word is law for the little group. Richard quickly acclimates himself, and has soon taken Francoise from Etienne. Then, on a supply run to the mainland, he and Sal -- let me not give anything away here, though I believe you will already have guessed that monogamy is not exactly treasured on the island.
In any case, tragedy and trauma will soon follow, because Richard has violated Daffy's trust by making a copy of the map and leaving it for some American acquaintances back in Bangkok, and it is they who will trigger the denouement of the film.
Though I have painted the film bleakly, in point of fact it is not a disaster. The camera loves DiCaprio, and by keeping it focused on him throughout, director Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting") hides at least a few of the holes in the plot. And the cinematography, by director of photography Darius Khondji, is remarkable. There are even moments when the film has the (appropriate) look of an independent production, with magic-realist cuts to fantasies and visions. But ultimately, the problem with "The Beach" is the lack of any connection between the audience and the film, so that what we see and hear the characters do on screen has no resonance for us in the audience. The film was made from a first novel by Alex Garland, and what might have seemed exotic and precious and frightening on the page, because we readers conjure it up in our minds, simply loses its power when transferred to the overwhelming sight and sound and fury of a movie.