Judge Patrick Bromley took three left turns somewhere...
Small town. Big trouble.
Yet another "inept criminals gain a conscience and look to belong among the people they were robbing" flick (think Happy, Texas or Bad Santa), made during Nicolas Cage's transitional period from inconsistent character actor to wildly inconsistent leading man.
Facts of the Case
Bill Firpo (Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas, The Rock) has a big problem on his hands: his two convict brothers, the pathologically lying Dave (Jon Lovitz, Saturday Night Live, Happiness) and kleptomaniac Alvin (Dana Carvey, Saturday Night Live, Wayne's World) have been released from prison. Within moments of his picking them up, Bill and his brothers are being chased by police and have to skip town—heading to Paradise, Pennsylvania on Dave's suggestion. It just so happens that Paradise is populated by the nicest, most trusting people on the planet—which makes it that much easier when the boys decide they're going to rob the town bank on Christmas Eve. And while robbing the bank doesn't end up half as simple as it once seemed (it eventually involves escorting half the town from the local diner into the bank as hostages), it doesn't even compare to the difficulty the brothers have trying to get out of town. Though they try—by car, by boat, even by horse-drawn sled—it looks as though the boys may be trapped among the good folks of Paradise…and the cute bank teller (Madchen Amick, Twin Peaks, Sleepwalkers) that Bill's got his eye on.
Watching Trapped in Paradise, I got the feeling that it had undergone extensive rewrites. It felt like a small movie—one with a modest plot and a few quirky roles for character actors, but with some big Hollywood sensibilities inserted upon it. It has multiple subplots—including jailbreaking gangsters, kidnapped mothers, adorable bank tellers with secret pasts, and a retarded lawman who loves his horse—and endless clichéd "beats," and not one of them feels like it belongs.
(Side note: I was wrong. The film is the work of only one man—writer/director George Gallo. The whole mess was his from the beginning.)
Everything in the film feels tacked on—even the bank-robbing plot, and that's the center of the entire film. At the start of the movie, Bill (Cage) is staunchly anti-crime, both disapproving and resentful of his brothers' history of criminal activity. Yet when presented with the opportunity to rob the Paradise bank, there's not even a moment's hesitation on Bill's part—you'd think he was a career criminal. There's no character logic to the decision, but without it there would be no movie; hence, it winds up tacked onto a story where it doesn't fit. Likewise with nearly all of the film's other "beats," whether it's Bill's romance with the bank teller (literally inserted so that one exists) or the "suspenseful" scene where Alvin (Carvey) nearly drowns and has to be resuscitated. The way that sequence is cut together, coupled with the score (one of the most imposingly feel-good scores I've ever had the misfortune to hear), adds up to a "dramatic" moment where the surrounding characters—and hopefully the audience—are concerned for the life of Alvin Firpo. All I could think was "Really?" Do we actually think, despite the film's best efforts, that Dana Carvey will die? And do we even care?
The comedy of the film—and it is considered a comedy—doesn't reach beyond a few broad physical bits and some simplistic characterizations of "nice folk." Problem is, writer/director George Gallo (Double Take) seems to think that just the idea of niceness is funny—he doesn't seem to get that you have to say something about niceness for the comedy to work. It's fine that he populates Paradise with overtly kind and generous folks; it establishes the central dilemma of "how can we rob these people" for the main characters. It doesn't, however, automatically insure laughs. Either the film or the characters therein have to have an attitude about the townspeople for the film to be funny (it comes close only with the great Richard Jenkins's character). Sadly, the film cannot be bothered with this kind of coloration—it might get in the way of the plot.
The film's star, Nicolas Cage, is an interesting case study. There was a time (just prior to his Oscar win for Leaving Las Vegas) that I considered him my favorite actor, and yet even that was for only half of his work. At that time, he seemed to balance fascinatingly over-the-top performances in smaller films (Vampire's Kiss, Raising Arizona) with embarrassingly over-the-top performances in disappointing Hollywood fare (Firebirds, Amos and Andrew). There were, of course, a few exceptions—I'll always love Honeymoon in Vegas, which was pretty "normal" for Cage. And while I recognize that his performance in Peggy Sue Got Married pretty much derailed any scene he was in, the fact that it was inspired by Pokey the Horse (of Art Clokey's Gumby fame) made it completely worthwhile as far as I was concerned.
But then something happened—Nicolas Cage became a full-blown movie star, and his work began to suffer. Suddenly, he was an action hero appearing in the Bruckheimer-crap du jour; when not busy saving the world in mediocre summer blockbusters (to be fair, I liked The Rock, but Con Air? c'mon…), he was making bad choices in films (8MM) and being terrible in them (Captain Corelli's Mandolin). Occasionally, we still get to see flashes of his eccentric genius—Adaptation and Matchstick Men rank among his best work to date—but overall, Cage's career has taken a disappointing turn for the worse.
Watching Trapped in Paradise, then, almost made me nostalgic for a time when Cage's acting choices were simply misguided, not cynical. What drew him to the film is beyond my comprehension, as neither his character nor the plot are at all funny or interesting—as a result, one can sense a vibe of "I've got to keep this interesting for myself" in his performance. It doesn't work; his New Yawk accent is an inconsistent mess, and his ultra-mannered line readings are way out of place, but at least the effort is an ambitious swing and lacks the cold calculation of much of his contemporary work.
His castmates, SNL alumni Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey, don't do much to help Cage out. Though both men have the capacity to be very funny, their respective film work has never done much in the way of providing them a decent showcase—Trapped in Paradise is no exception. Lovitz is given nothing to do but his usual likeable slime act; he's got it down so cold that it ceases to be inventive or exciting. Sure, a few flashes of his trademark insincere smile go a long way, but it's all he's got to offer here. And Dana Carvey, as the dimmest of the three brothers, isn't just disappointingly dull like his costars—he's downright annoying. Carvey seems to have gone out of his way to invent a character that wasn't present on the page; his Alvin Firpo is such a heavy-lidded, high-voiced idiot that he ceases to even resemble a human being—he's a cartoon doofus.
Fox's disc of the film looks and sounds great, but has no real extras to speak of. The film is presented in both widescreen and full frame formats, modified for television on one side and in the original 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio on the other. If you insist on watching the film, you'd be wise to choose the widescreen version, as many of the film's compositions were designed with the "scope" photography in mind. Other than that, the image looks excellent—black levels and the film's many deep colors are gorgeously represented. Speaking of the color palette, this is about the darkest comedy I've seen since We're No Angels—but that was set during the Depression, so you kind of understand it. The 5.1 Dolby soundtrack is powerful, too, though possibly too aggressive when it comes to composer Robert Folk's disgustingly sweet score. The only extra on the disc is the film's original theatrical trailer, which makes the film out to be considerably more fun than it ultimately is.
There are better comedies. There are better Christmas movies. There are better Nicolas Cage movies. Don't sell yourself short by pledging any sort of allegiance to Trapped in Paradise—we all deserve better.
The Court finds the Firpo Brothers guilty and mandates increased selectivity (and decreased gesticulation) for Nicolas Cage. Jon Lovitz is asked to use his trademark smile for good instead of evil. Dana Carvey simply must be stopped.
Court is adjourned.
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