With his round head and his smoothly contoured body, Leonardo DiCaprio could be a "Peanuts" character. Even his voice has that weird mixture of earnest adult and disaffected youth. Stars of DiCaprio's magnitude often have an androgynous streak, but not since Rudolph Valentino has the man-woman split been so delicately blurred, making it difficult to tell whether he's a pretty good actor or just pretty. There's something overcompensative about DiCaprio's performance in The Beach, his first leading-man role since Titanic turned him into the most popular movie star in the world. In more ways than one, he's miscast as the Ugly American. And yet he throws all the testosterone he can muster at the role, especially in the scenes where his character starts doing a Rambo number in a remote Thai jungle. Rambo? Bimbo is more like it. "My name is Richard. So what else do you need to know?" Thus does DiCaprio set the movie's tone of earnest disaffection in voice-over narration. Richard is one of those backpacking slackers who roam the world in search of...well, they'll know it when they see it. In Richard's case, deliverance comes in the form of a map left in the door of his Bangkok hotel room by a guy who subsequently splashed the walls of his adjoining room with his own blood. Undeterred, Richard recruits the young French couple from two doors down for his journey to paradise. By default, this is the most interesting part of the movie, as our intrepid trio swim, hack and leap their way to a place nobody knows about except the well-armed Thai thugs guarding a farmer's marijuana field and the 20 or so backpacking slackers who are already there and appear to be castaways from "Gilligan's Island." Call them the young and the rested. Blissed out on the sheer perfection of their surroundings, these ultimate beach bums spend all their time playing volleyball and posing for imaginary Benetton ads. But there's a serpent in the garden, and his name's Richard. (That explains the scene back in Bangkok where he chugs a glass of snake blood.) Which is to say, sex rears its ugly head. Under the circumstances, we might have expected vine-swinging orgies, but Richard's itch for the lovely Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen) somehow upsets the ecological balance between the Thai thugs and the beach bums. And the latter's leader, given an imperial sheen by Tilda Swinton, starts mistaking Gilligan's Island for Jonestown. In short, all hell breaks loose, and Richard, who's seen too many movies about Nam, prepares for guerrilla warfare.
The Beach tries to plumb the depths of youthful angst without getting its feet wet. We're supposed to sympathize with Richard's longing for something "more real"--visceral reality instead of virtual reality. But director Danny Boyle is shaping up as one of cinema's more shallow deep-thinkers, a vice that seemed like a virtue in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, where it cut into the morbid subject matter. Here, it's a killer. The Beach wants to be Heart of Darkness by way of Apocalypse Now, but it also wants to be Jaws, and it's got the shark attacks to prove it. Months ago, the filmmakers took a major hit in the press for despoiling a Thai beach while making their movie about how wrong it is to despoil Thai beaches. Whether or not they did any lasting damage, simply being there was an amazing act of hypocrisy and hubris.