The Beach Boy

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He has heard tales of The Beach: the sugar sand leading to a phosphorescent sea, the beautiful people living in an unruffled commune, the symbiosis of modern man and primal nature. And if these attractions don't give you a high, then the free dope will--it sprouts like kudzu all over the place. Now Richard, the narrator of the book and film The Beach, has somehow reached this ideal island in Thailand, this littoral dream made literal. But Utopia isn't good enough for Richard, because he's questing, he's weak, he's ornery... he's Leonardo DiCaprio. The Beach opened last week preceded by the odor of dead fish. Early word was disastrous, and the first reviews didn't help. From this critic's seat, the view is mixed. The film that director Danny Boyle and scripter John Hodge have fashioned from Alex Garland's novel has plenty of beguilements and even more problems. It's a big, mixed bag, ambitious and frustrating, with a lot on its mind and a daring, assured performance from the young star. In short, it's a typical DiCaprio movie.

Always remember this: for DiCaprio, Titanic--the all-time blockbuster that made him king of the movie world--was an anomaly, a fluke. He built his career not by playing the blameless hero in big swoony technotrash but by finding weird corners and gray areas in troubled teens in small, off-Broadwayish movies. He was a critics' darling before he was a heartthrob. The easy ingratiation he paraded in Titanic is one of his gifts, but not the most notable. We prefer his off-kilter choice of projects, his perfect pitch within so many of the characters he's played.

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He could have incarnated Top Guns and baby Terminators, or starred in any of a zillion teen comedies. But he chose a tougher route to filling out his rsum. And as it grew, in his seven major roles before Titanic, a portrait of the young artist began to emerge. So often DiCaprio played the emotional orphan, in a forlorn quest not for a father but for his own budding maturity--for a chance to become the man who needs no father.

He burst on the scene, seemingly out of nowhere--the soap Santa Barbara, the sitcom Growing Pains (as a homeless kid), bits in Critters 3 and Poison Ivy--as Toby in This Boy's Life. He is at the center of this movie about a boy who bad-lucks into a stint with an abusive stepfather. And he holds the center; he can commandeer the screen doing nothing, with an eloquent slouch and a gaze that says, beneath the winsomeness, I can take it.

He is just as willful and complex playing Arnie, the retarded boy living under a death sentence in What's Eating Gilbert Grape; as he is playing Meryl Streep's pyromaniac son Hank in Marvin's Room. Other young actors, to keep viewers on their side, would strike the sympathy key fortissimo. But DiCaprio, knowing that he had a cuddly-toy quality (a face just shy of puberty, a smile that, in his first TV spot, was used to sell milk), barely rouged the rougher aspects of his characters. Toby is a decent kid, but his stabs at '50s punkdom rasp the nerves. Arnie is so aware of his doom that when he tells a new friend, I could go at any time, it sounds like a come-on; yet his rampages drive his saintly brother (Johnny Depp) to violence. And Hank could be just a bad kid trapped in a boy-angel's body. But DiCaprio could be all of these very different kids, plausibly and attractively.

Every promising career needs a catastrophe, if only for a change of pace, and Total Eclipse was DiCaprio's. This is the movie folks rent to snag a glimpse of the star's naughty bits (for which a slow button, a magnifying glass and a vivid imagination are required). No more Mr. Nice Guy; as Arthur Rimbaud, Paris' teen-poet sensation of 1870, DiCaprio has a talent to abuse. In an early sketch for the out-of-control movie star he so cagily plays in Celebrity, Rimbaud stands naked on an attic window ledge, pisses on someone he doesn't care for, sodomizes his friend Paul Verlaine. Well, the older poet asked for it--begged for it. Rimbaud is Verlaine's slut, coquette, dominatrix and muse. This rollicking atrocity of a film offers the most convulsive affair in the DiCaprio oeuvre, and the clearest image of the awful power the young, gorgeous and deranged have over those brave and stupid enough to fall in love with them.

I decided to be a genius, Rimbaud says. I decided to originate the future. What DiCaprio was originating in his next phase was rambunctious guys with no future at all. Rimbaud: poisoned by infection. Kid, the gunpoke in The Quick and the Dead: shot dead by his dastardly dad. Jim, the Catholic schoolboy in The Basketball Diaries: nearly kills himself with heroin. At least these misfits courted disaster. The only sin of the noble DiCaprio hero in Romeo + Juliet and Titanic is to be caught in the wrong place with the girl he loves. Has any teen idol played so many characters who end up dead? (DiCaprio's double role in The Man in the Iron Mask doesn't suit our thesis--he is pampered by four father figures and gives a soggy performance--so we'll ignore it.)

After Titanic, DiCaprio could have done anything. The lead in The Talented Mr. Ripley: that sounded fitting. Instead, he crashed on The Beach. Whatever the new movie has going for it or against it, DiCaprio's choice of this unusual project--a contemplative action movie, an interior thriller--is true to the contours of his career so far. He wants to try new stuff, stretch his range, see how far he can go and take his fans with him. If it flops, and the next one (Martin Scorsese's The Gangs of New York) too, what's the worst that can happen? He won't be a big star anymore? O.K., but he'll always be an actor.

As Richard, the American abroad, DiCaprio is a young adult, but no less isolated than in his teen-angst films. Here, as in This Boy's Life, he lies in bed listening to a couple next door banging away at their amours. A madman on the other side of the wall, named Daffy (Robert Carlyle), leaves Richard a map to the treasure island. When he and the couple, Franoise (Virginie Ledoyen) and Etienne (Guillaume Canet), trek to the hidden beach, Richard is happy to fit in with the communers, even with the strict rules enunciated by Sal (Tilda Swinton), the camp's queen bee. Still, he feels isolated. A fabulous resort is no fun if a fellow isn't getting laid. As he says, Desire is desire wherever you go. The sun will not bleach it, nor the tide wash it away.

And a secret garden isn't as special if it doesn't remain secret. Before heading for the island, Richard had left a map with some other Americans. Now they are trying to enter, and it is his duty to keep them away and get the map. It is also time for a semi-idyllic Beach Party to morph into Apocalypse Now. Richard descends, or rather soars, into savagery. This handsomely made film--as attentive to Nature's predatory beauty as any film since Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line--goes a bit nuts, along with him. It sheds plausibility like a snakeskin, even as it accrues a needless cinematheque of references: to The Lord of the Flies, The Sheltering Sky, The Deer Hunter. It renounces the audience's complicities when it needs them most.

In the novel, Richard is a mirror of his author: a 20-something Brit drifting toward a bright sea with dark eddies. And there was a little rancor when Ewan McGregor, the Scot who'd starred in Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and A Life Less Ordinary for Boyle and Hodge, lost the role of Richard to a $20 million golden boy from Hollywood. But the book and the film, for all their differences, have the same point to make. This is a story about how young people with the best intentions can turn a jungle paradise (like Vietnam) into a nightmare war zone (like Vietnam). Thus it makes sense that the lead character--the game boy who tumbles into a foreign heart of darkness and, almost too late, realizes it is his--should be American. Vietnam was our mess, thanks awfully. We'll take it.

So, yes, DiCaprio. It was smart of Boyle to court him for the part, brave of the actor to take it. Let's have a new kind of action star, one who calls into question (as the character and the film do) the very need for violent action movies. That's DiCaprio here: less Rambo than Rimbaud; a wild child back in the jungle. And, like Arnie and Hank and the Kid, a little boy lost. But the role doesn't play to all his strengths. He's most seductive when in repose; here he is on the move, reacting to trouble rather than causing it. He's waiting for something to happen rather than someone to slap or save him. He can't save the film when it goes haywire, because he is as stranded as Richard is.

Which leaves us with a suspicion that won't please Leo, his agent or Hollywood: maybe DiCaprio is a superb supporting actor. He needs something besides the great awful world--he needs other imposing actors--to play against and within. He needs other eyes to gaze into besides the camera's: a Depp or Claire Danes. On his own, even a talent like DiCaprio isn't acting; he's play-acting.

An actor who comes to the screen in youth is like an IPO; audiences invest themselves in his future. After Titanic, the DiCaprio stock was goofily inflated. In the wake of The Beach, it may dip. But we should not confuse the achievement of an actor--especially one as daring, engaging and resourceful as DiCaprio--with the popularity or even success of any one film. He and we are in it for the long run. It ought to be an adventure, following the Kid on a career-long journey in search of his best or most dangerous self.