If this is Paradise, I'll take the Inferno.

One reason for the movies to exist: People love to imagine themselves in situations that will never, ever happen to them. Return to Paradise takes that premise and makes it explicit. This is a film that boldly asks, “What would you do?” The strange thing is how insipid the question becomes when it’s put to an audience point-blank.

Return to Paradise

directed by Joseph Ruben

starring Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Joaquin Phoenix

Starts Friday at Metro, Alderwood 7

Sheriff (the even-better-than-ever Vince Vaughn), Lewis (JoaquinPhoenix, better known as “Liv Tyler’s boyfriend”), and Tony (David Conrad) are a trio of young Americans (in the David Bowie sense) hanging out in Malaysia, smoking hash while standing waist-deep in warm water, going for joyrides on their single bike, joyriding too with the young, available Malay women. The idyll ends when Sheriff and Tony head home to New York, leaving the idealistic Lewis with his dreams of helping the orangutans in Borneo—and with some big packets of hashish.

Two years later, a lawyer named Beth (Anne Heche) tracks down Sheriff and Tony, informs them that Lewis was caught with the hash and has been held in a Penang prison for the last two years. If they don’t return to Malaysia and take their share of responsibility for the drugs, he will be hung in eight days. Well? What would you do?

The movie delivers a gripping, gratuitous thrill for its first two-thirds. Never mind that the question is essentially silly—”Gee, what would I do if my friend were imprisoned for drug trafficking in Malaysia and I were his only hope?” Its very unlikelihood makes it titillating fun to ask oneself. It’s a moral quandary you don’t have to haul home from the theater with you.

Ultimately, though, the film’s thinness shows. It becomes all too clear that there is no real moral question to ponder here. The not-bloody-likely set-up doesn’t allow us to think about moral choices that have any resonance in our own lives. As the film attempts—in a series of clumsy, ill-paced scenes—to build to a tragic climax, it instead delivers a pratfall. It’s trying to topple deliriously under its moral weight, but instead just pfffts away weightlessly.