What do you call a narrative whose imperfections—OK, more like “distracting flaws”—line up one-to-one with those of its central character? There's probably a German word for it, some octo-syllabic monster better spat than spoken, deployed only when grad students kibitz about the particular strangeness of a story like Paradise, the wised-up yet deeply heartfelt directorial debut of screenwriter Diablo Cody. The movie fits around its heroine the way a shell fits its turtle—it's like she secreted it. Like Lamb Mannerheim (Julianne Hough), a moneyed, home-schooled beauty chucking her God and her purity for one night in Las Vegas, the film is sprightly then mopey, alive then miserable, striding purposefully forward yet not going anywhere, really. Lamb's plan, hatched after a plane crash leaves her arms, legs, and torso forever scarred, is simple yet vague: She'll corrupt herself in Sin City, party with the hedonists and homosexuals her small-town church has long warned her against, and then—well, her mission's third act is as hazy as the story's.
At a half-dead bar, Lamb makes a couple of new best friends who take to her immediately for reasons the movie never makes clear—their common ground seems only to be that the same writer thought them all up. Since the crew comprises Octavia Spencer, who aces Cody's wry and allusional dialogue, and Russell Brand, who is never better than in supporting roles like this one, they're welcome, even when their long night grinds on and they all get mad at each other for reasons as uncertain as their hooking up in the first place.
There's pleasure in the misadventures, especially that rococo Cody chatter, here less stylized than in her hit Juno and less consistently acute than in Young Adult. The receptionist at Lamb's hotel eyeballs her churchy look—full denim skirt, Nelson-brother hair—and asks, “You going to '80s night?” Spencer's lounge-singer character performs Radiohead's “No Surprises,” assails Hollywood's Magical Negro cliché, and dismisses the Strip as a “baby-boomer magic-mushroom shitshow.” Spencer, as a defensive near-geek rebelling against expectations of what an African-American woman should be, is the movie's great treat.
And here's Lamb's reaction when she gets a whiff of the toiletries in her suite's shower: “In my house we make our own soap. This stuff smells like a whore. I like it.” Behind the camera, Cody smartly times her more successful jokes.
Lamb is angry, but still really nice, and sometimes too eager to say godawful things. The movie shares these traits rather than examining them. “My arms look like turkey bacon!” she cries, a line Cody gives us like it's something a human might laugh at. Later, Hough is genuinely moving as Lamb talks through what her life is actually like: “Everything I was saving for my future husband is ruined.” There's such pain in that speech and in Hough's well-directed performance that it's hard not to wish the movie had been about the night Lamb actually faced the loss of her faith rather than the time she went to Vegas, met some pretty nice people, and learned lessons never quite shown to the audience.
Still, there's something to be said for fiction that, in its form, dares to resemble life as it's lived. Our minor failings and chemical imbalances certainly shape our stories. This troubled yet promising debut gets that much right.