"I'm sorry, Willie, but I've made my
choice. You just can't compete."
In the Stomp Tokyo lexicon, the name of actress Phoebe Cates is usually preceded by a certain phrase: "ever-watchable." Examples include:
"Hey, we gotta rent this movie! It stars the ever-watchable Phoebe Cates!"
"You have about as much chance of dating that girl as you do of dating the ever-watchable Phoebe Cates. And I don't just say that because Cates is married."
"You know who doesn't make movies anymore? The ever-watchable Phoebe Cates."
After seeing Paradise, however, we may have to reconsider our position. Perhaps the phrase should be downgraded to "usually-watchable" Phoebe Cates, or "mostly watchable" Phoebe Cates, or even "watchable-in-anything-but-Paradise" Phoebe Cates. This is not to say that Cates is unwatchable in Paradise, exactly, but the film surrounding her makes the task difficult. This includes her co-star, Willie "Eight is Enough" Aames, who is almost never watchable.
"Where's that Nemo?"
At first glance the movie bears a striking resemblance to the previous year's The Blue Lagoon, substituting Cates and Aames for Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins. The year is 1826, and two youngsters are stranded in the Syrian Desert when their caravan from Baghdad to Damascus is attacked by The Jackal, a white slave trader with a particular jones for the comely Sarah (Cates). David (Aames), a devout but naive missionary traveling with his parents, is quickly made an orphan in the attack. He aids in Sarah's escape, but soon they are both abandoned when Sarah's guardian is killed in an unfortunate encounter with the Jackal's men.
David and Sarah fend for themselves quite handily, somehow finding themselves on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. How they got there on foot, without encountering another civilized soul, is anyone's guess. Even if they had been just outside Damascus when they were attacked, the whole of Lebanon would have stretched between them and the sea. Such matters are of little consequence, however, when we pause to consider this movie's true mission: to get Phoebe Cates as naked as possible, as often as possible.
"OK, now we just need
to cover your face. . . "
Like the characters in Blue Lagoon, the two adolescent heroes go through puberty together. But unlike the kids in Blue Lagoon, they have some role models to ape. Literally. Against all logic, not one but two chimpanzees find their way (separately!) to oases where David and Sarah shack up. From these simian examples and a handy medical book left behind by Sarah's bodyguard the naifs learn the biology of love. Despite David's initial religious misgivings, hormones soon take care of the rest. It would be an easy joke to say that Willie Aames could only get laid if he were the only option for the woman involved. But in the case of Paradise, that wouldn't be true. Sarah has sex with David, choosing him over . . . two monkeys and the slave trader. Still, that's got to count for something.
OK, now you know
it's Phoebe Cates.
The simple story of two teenagers fornicating in the wilderness would be one thing, but it turns out that Sarah and David are the world's most competent desert survivalists. Not only do they repeatedly escape from the Jackal and his men (who apparently have nothing better to do with months of their time but hunt down fugitives), but they also set up fabulously elaborate camps with the contents of a camel's pack and a few palm fronds, all the while maintaining their weight and youthful good looks. Even when the Jackal burns down their first camp, they escape to a prettier oasis, complete with waterfall and stony ruins. There we are treated to protracted footage of the actors skinny-dipping, though Aames' genitals have been artfully blurred from the scene. Curious audience members might mourn the chance to see "Little Willie," but we thank the producers and whichever censoring boards they feared for this small bit of mercy.
Paradise was clearly made for American consumption, though apparently it was shot in Israel, if we interpret the credits correctly. The location would certainly explain the sudden appearance of the ocean in the desert. Almost as telling of the film's target audience as the fact that the film was shot in English is the copious nudity, and there's plenty of it even before David casts off his prudish ways to make sweet love to Sarah. After that point, look out! It's breasts, buttocks, and brawls with the Jackal all the way to the end of the film. Some of the extended love scenes stretch credibility with two teenaged virgins, how can any love scene possibly last longer than thirty seconds? but the demands of the producers win out over a realistic depiction of adolescent copulation.
The screenwriters of The Core
take a much-deserved vacation.
Lest one think that Cates steals the show entirely, we should mention that Aames is given plenty to do, and indeed, he bears most of the acting weight in the film. If that sentence made you clutch your head reflexively and squeeze your eyes shut, then we assume you've seen Aames' sitcom-style acting before. And while we are tempted to say that Aames' worst efforts are contained within the 100 minutes of Paradise, such a statement would blatantly ignore the many episodes of Charles in Charge and Aames' other collaboration with Scott Baio, Zapped! (In addition, as we have not seen any episodes of the Aames-written and -directed Bible Man, we feel a bit unqualified to say that we have withstood the man's most noxious screen moments.) Still, most of the story movement hangs on Aames' shoulders, as it is he who takes the initiative in nearly every scene that doesn't involve prurient mischief by Sarah. (Remember that self-preservative skull-grasping you did moments ago? Boy, we'd really love to see your reaction to the phrase "Willie Aames' pup tent.") David keeps the wacky little foursome alive by moving them from oasis to oasis, he provides the group with food and shelter, and it is he who must face the Jackal in the film's final minutes. For Willie Aames, the man so emblematic of the best friend / sidekick role that his Charles in Charge character was actually named "Buddy," this is the shining moment in which he was the leading man, the hero. We hope he enjoyed it, because after this it's back to being the human cannonball on Circus of the Stars.
The rewards of Paradise depend entirely on your own particular tolerance for poor acting and the highly coincidental nature of the adventure. In some cases the desert photography is actually quite stunning, in particular a sequence shot in a cave with a waterfall. Also of note is the underwater footage of Aames swimming along a coral reef, if you can handle the presence of tropical fish in the Syrian desert. The scenery is even better if you're lucky enough to happen upon the non-U.S. DVD, which was mastered in widescreen. Americans may have to settle for the cropped VHS version which might even be preferable if they manage to crop Aames from a few scenes but if you're into self-punishment, by all means seek out the widescreen version to see the man is all his floppy-haired glory. If you're really looking to torture yourself, though, stick around for the end credits to hear Phoebe Cates mangle the movie's theme song. You sick bastard!