starring Matthew Lillard, Seth Green, Dax Shepard, Burt Reynolds
screenplay by Jay Leggett & Mitch Rouse
directed by Steven Brill
by Walter Chaw Steven Brill's Without a Paddle is relentless and brutal--like Alanis Morrissette's version of Cole Porter's "Let's Do It," the torment of it just never ends. Weathered CIA spooks would spill their mother's social security numbers after five minutes of enduring this kind of torture. It's not fair, really--normal people aren't equipped to withstand a cross between The Goonies, Bushwhacked, Deliverance, Surviving the Game, The Great Outdoors, The Pursuit of D. B. Cooper, American Pie, Southern Comfort, Swiss Family Robinson, and The Big Chill that borrows the cell phone gag from Jurassic Park III and even a little something from, I kid you not, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. It is, in other words, a gross-out slapstick comedy set in the wilderness that is unkind to Appalachians while making a play for cuddly sentimentality despite more than a few moments that are needlessly graphic or just plain grotesque. Blame the brain trust of actors-turned-screenwriters Jay Leggett and Mitch Rouse--or, better yet, blame director Steven Brill, a Sandler crony who proves that sad nepotism does not a director make.
Take the example of a bullet wound suffered by one of our heroes, Tom (Dax Shepard). As diminutive doctor Dan (Seth Green) stitches him up in the middle of the wilderness, director Brill decides in brilliant serial killer fashion to show a few close-ups of Dan sticking the needle through the wound (where did the needle come from? Jesus, I don't know) and then hold a shot of the closed-up gash for a beat. Why? It isn't funny, it doesn't establish character, it doesn't forward the plot, it's not set up, it's not paid off--it never comes into play again, in fact. But there it is, occupying a few minutes of screentime and sickening everyone in the process. When anything is this inept, it starts to feel aggressive.
Tom and Dan and Matthew Lillard are three pals whose fourth pal has died offscreen, and so they reunite at his funeral and, after unearthing a time capsule they hid away as tots, decide to go on one last scavenger hunt for D.B. Cooper's lost treasure in honour of their fallen comrade. There are side-plots, of course: Tom is a compulsive gambler whose life is in shambles; Dan is a doctor, sure, but not real smooth with the ladies; and Matthew Lillard is typecast as a bug-eyed freak with energy control problems who can't commit to his shrewish girlfriend. Because Without a Paddle is the kind of movie that it is, all of these problems will be resolved--and did I mention the scene where Seth Green is "picked up," cartoon-style, by the smell of bacon, and that the bumbling trio can also, incidentally, outrun bears and dogs? There's no rhythm to the piece, no sense of pride in the project, and it's so whorishly eager to please that condoms and directions to the free clinic should be handed out at the door.
If you're somehow coaxed into seeing this film but have any sense at all, seeing the words "and Burt Reynolds" splash across the screen will drive you out into the lobby to get your money back. In so doing, you'll spare yourself a scene where hippies throw bags of human excrement at rednecks on ATVs--you'll deprive yourself of the sight of these three charisma vortexes toasting one another in Bud commercial slow-motion. Best, you won't have to squirm when a Native American river guide chastises the boys for breaking glass where his children play. But the worst, the absolute nadir of Without a Paddle (possibly the only film worse than Catwoman so far this year), is when it decides that it wants to be tender and trots out such keepers as "Being alive, now that's the treasure." Not touching, never funny, Without a Paddle is the kind of movie that embarrasses you even when you had nothing to do with it--it's painful enough just to bear witness. Originally published: August 18, 2004.