There's a whole lot of trouble with this 'Paradise'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Trapped in Paradise" feels trapped in nowhere. It's set in some weird alternate universe in which violence is funny, guns don't kill and all's well -- including exceedingly traumatic and invasive criminal assault -- that ends well. It's set in Never Ever Land, not Pennsylvania.

A modest comedy that does indeed stir a few chuckles out of its knuckleheaded trio of bad boys, it grows almost shockingly disturbing when it portrays armed robbery as amusing and the implicit death threat of the firearm as a joke. In this respect, it's the ugliest movie of the year. Or, no: It's merely the stupidest.

The film begins with (and ends with, and is about) the Firpo brothers, a low-rent, low-IQ clan of extra-Y morons embodied by Dana Carvey at his dumbest, Jon Lovitz at his most mendacious and Nicolas Cage at his most befuddled. You could say, then, that it's engineered to play to each actor's strength, so give it credit for understanding the potential of the cast. That's professionalism, at least.

Cage's Bill Firpo is desperately trying to go straight, fighting against the mores of family and genetics that impel him to take that which is not his. But, grudgingly and self-loathingly, he appears to be winning the battle against his own nature. Alas, he soon discovers that his two incarcerated brothers, Alvin (Carvey) and Dave (Lovitz), are about to be freed on Christmas furlough.

Alvin and Dave are far less evolved than Bill is; total incorrigibles, their larceny is as natural to them as breathing. They'll steal anything, baldly, badly, with a simpering helpless look on their slack faces. Petty thief as baby. So immediately the film sets up a nice little tension: Dumb Bill tries desperately to stay straight and his dumber and dumbest brothers try desperately to stay crooked. But (best stroke) Bill's own weakness is working against him, and Dave is just smart enough to play sly little games of leverage against Bill, drawing him ever closer to the wrong side of the line.

Each of the three has a moment or two of comic magic. Carvey, as Stupidity Incarnate, has probably never been funnier (it helps him enormously not to have to carry the film on his slender shoulders), and the golden-throated but daffily vapid Lovitz works nice interpretations on the theme of the congenital but untalented liar, familiar from "SNL" but still amusing. But of the three, I much preferred Cage, who is actually performing a character, not a concept. We feel Bill's yearnings for the straight life while his weakness of character lures him ever onward, toward self-destruction.

But then the movie all but deconstructs itself as it has its three lovable bad boys pull an extended bank robbery, during which they take hostage the whole town of Paradise, Pa.

VTC I am of the considered opinion that the least humorous object on earth is the sawed-off shotgun, but director George Gallo seems to find such weapons as amusing as custard pies. The whole lengthy sequence is built around gun-waving and gesticulating, around the magic power of the firearm to compel instant but false respect.

Worse, the movie reiterates that theme over and over. Two more bad guys come to town, guns are pulled, homes are invaded, submission under threat of death is compelled, yet the film refuses to acknowledge the gravity of the situations it evokes. That's the joke: No matter what the Firpos, and later two escaped and far more brutal convicts, inflict upon the good burghers of Paradise, they are instantly forgiven. What's more, the plot mainly consists of engineering elaborate conspiracies to disconnect the Firpos from any consequences of their own behavior.

The movie also owes far too much to Bill Murray's wonderful "Groundhog Day," a much more ingenious concoction. Though no supernatural power is invoked, the "Paradise" mechanism is somewhat the same: No matter what they do, the Firpos can't get out of Paradise.

No matter what road they take, what conveyance they steal -- including a horse-drawn sleigh -- they end up back in Paradise, where a keystone cop police force and F.B.Idiot federal team try to track them down, all chases ending in shopworn slapstick high jinx.

I could see this movie working much better if the Firpos were swindlers or con men, and their crime didn't involve violence but a more deft kind of larceny. But no: That would involve a cleverness of which nobody connected with this film seems capable.

"Trapped in Paradise"

Starring Nicolas Cage, Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz

Directed by George Gallo

Released by Twentieth-Century Fox

Rated PG-13

... **

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