In his first starring role since Titanic, teen heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio hits The Beach as Richard, a jaded young sensation-seeker whose desperate quest for stimulation takes him from the streets of Thailand to a secret island inhabited by armed marijuana farmers and members of a postmodern commune.
Early on, Richard’s thirst for experience finds him choking down snake blood, concluding, "If it hurts, it’s probably worth it." Unsuspecting DiCaprio fans may be the ones hurt by this pantheon to pleasure. It contains nudity, explicit sex, Christian hypocrisy, countless obscenities and intense violence. Drinking beer and smoking pot are favorite pastimes. There’s also a suicide, a "mercy" killing and gory wounds following a shark attack.
As awful as most of this movie is, DiCaprio’s character learns a few valuable lessons. Lies catch up with him, nearly destroying his friends. He also discovers that "community" requires work and sacrifice, even in paradise. A man nobly cares for an injured friend who, suddenly a burden to the group, has been left to die.
Even so, the film feels diseased and derivative. It panders to adolescent sexual fantasies (The Blue Lagoon) before leering at man’s battle-scarred inner beast (Apocalypse Now). It also raises sociological issues reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. But lacking a moral anchor, the prevailing message is, "If it feels good, do it—just don’t ruin anyone else’s fun." Narrated with clarity of hindsight, The Beach begins with a search for self-indulgent thrills and ends with the epiphany that paradise is not a place, but a feeling of connectedness. To what? In this case, to a bunch of hedonistic hippies.