If your first trip to Las Vegas filled you with the endless possibilities of finding romance or just being another convict on the run as you wade into the deep end of spiritual enlightenment, then Diablo Cody's directorial debut "Paradise" may just be the casino of the soul that you're looking for.
Lamb Mannerheim (Julianne Hough) lives the type of life that a Bravo pitch meeting revolves around. Home schooled and heavily in the church from a Midwestern community that wears its conservative views on it's sleeves. Speaking of which, Lamb can't show her sleeves or legs or chest, because she was recently the sole survivor of a plane crash. How deep her scars run is revealed in her first trip back to church where she reveals not only that she has given up on God, but will take her talents to Las Vegas, to experience life in all it's glittery hedonism.
Upon arriving in Sin City, Lamb makes her way to a sad excuse for a bar with an even sadder excuse for a lounge singer Loray (Octavia Spencer). There's just something inherant about bad lounge acts (Thank you, Bill Murray) and as she's getting booed off the stage, you can just tell Loray will have a heart of gold or for what passes for gold in Vegas. It turns out the bar is full of bad on stage performances, but good people as would-be lothario bartender William (Russell Brand) tries to muscle in on Loray's attempt to have a girl's night out with Lamb.
Loray takes Lamb on a journey to the "real Las Vegas" where service people party away from the tourists. However, Lamb's insistence on taking on her bucket list of sins pushes away her new friends, leaving our virginal heroine at the mercy of the true sin city.
Cody may be one of the hottest screenwriters these days, but I'm sure Cody the newbie director used the most important lesson of screenwriting and play to your strengths. Sticking to her trademark strong female character, with supporting characters leaning heavily on smart dialogue over action, Cody's directorial debut is just good enough to make you anxious for her next venture.
Of course, that dialogue can seem forced at times. While Spencer does her part as the sheltering surrogate mom for Cody's lost Lamb, there are times when her casting seems forced when she goes with out of place declarations of things like being the "Magical negro" or some pop nonsense. Russell Brand's constantly attractive sarcasm plays best when he's not getting top billing. He's a bit of a Robin to Spencer's Batman, but Brand's humor easily gets us through the slow pacing of a film that takes place in one of the fast paced cities around. By the time, he is semi-serious, it manages to come across as genuinely sincere.
"Paradise" is what a director's rookie effort should be, except it lacks a bit of the edge that is present in Cody's past works. Also, it's a stretch for a woman looking to experience a grocery list of sins to emerge from a PG-13 movie. Nevertheless, "Paradise" may not bring you spiritual enlightenment, but it is funny and smart enough to make you believe in something.
"Paradise" MPAA Rated: PG13. Running time: 105 minutes In limited release.