For her first stint in the director's chair, "Juno" screenwriter Diablo Cody has concocted a modern-day "Alice Through the Looking Glass," with none of the danger or wit. "Paradise" follows a home-schooled, Jesus-loving Montana lass who loses her faith and heads to Sin City to experience the corrupting power of real life. The not-so-wild ride is essentially sappy, however much of Cody's self-consciously barbed dialogue its characters are forced to utter.
As the symbolically named Lamb, Julianne Hough is sweetly intent on a firsthand encounter with "your basic abominations." Scarred and traumatized after a plane crash, she questions the existence of a loving God and, insurance payout in hand, hightails it to Vegas, where she's promptly taken under wing by a smitten bartender (Russell Brand) and time-toughened lounge singer (Octavia Spencer).
Among the three main characters, Spencer, who dons a red boa to croon Radiohead songs for booing drunks, comes closest to creating a full-blooded character. In the much smaller role of Lamb's mother, Holly Hunter provides a nuanced performance, while Nick Offerman, as Lamb's father, is on hand more as a visual gag than anything else.
Cody inserts a few successful visual jokes in the movie's early scenes, but much of its humor is on the order of condescending swipes at sheltered Christians. Relying on dialogue — and extensive voiceover — to explain how everyone feels, Lamb's adventures with her Red Queen and Cheshire Cat in the divey, "real" Vegas have a flat, forced trajectory. Though it's built around a kernel of tender feeling, the comedy never transcends its basic contrivance.
"Paradise." Rated PG-13 for sexual material, substance abuse, some language and thematic elements. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes. At AMC Burbank Town Center 8. Also on VOD.
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