Without a Paddle is a worn out concoction of things you’ve already seen in other movies or in bad Saturday Night Live sketches. The only thing missing is a cameo by Canteen Boy. Scratch that, Alec Baldwin apologizing for his hairy chest is probably a little too inspired for this movie. It tries desperately to be lovable, throwing up as much smokescreen as possible to give its characters’ journey some sort of meaning other than as a poor excuse for slapstick backwoods comedy. It also tries to sell itself to thirty-something geeks, with out of place Indiana Jones references and bad C3PO impersonations by Seth Green. Ultimately, none of that does anything to lift this disjointed movie above other equally lifeless, conventional comedies. In other words, this is a picture pretty comfortable on the bottom of a video shelf with Welcome to Mooseport.
Paddle opens with four kids, doing the sorts of things that all kids do in movies about growing up in the 80’s. They ride bikes, build tree houses, and generally spend a lot of time either challenging or forcing each other to do stupid things. Each kid fits a specific stereotype and continues to do so a few minutes later when the movie flashes to the present where we find those four best friends all grown up.
Tom (Dax Shepard) is the group’s thug and comedy relief, a mental midget who pushes his friends into doing dangerous things just because he’s too dumb to know any better. As an adult that translates into lots of luck with the ladies and a lot of time spent in prison for him. Jerry (Mathew Lillard) is sort of their everyman, girlfriend, boring job (in his spare time he’s obsessed with surfing, which doesn’t fit in at all with anything else about his character). That’s a weird departure for Lillard, who’s best when playing a wacked out stoner. It’s only made to feel more unnatural when he occasionally slips into Lillard’s Scooby Doo honed impression of Shaggy by accident. Dan (Seth Green) is the group nerd and weakling; we know this because he has an inhaler and can’t seem to keep up with friends. In the real world guys like Tom and Jerry beat up kids like Dan, they don’t hang out with them. But for the purposes of this movie we need someone to abuse and generally be afraid of everything, so let’s pretend Dan puts up with the wedgies and hangs out with them. Last there’s Billy, the all around perfect guy. Good looks, brains, money, he’s got everything going for him. As the foursome grows up and subsequently grows apart, Billy lives the kind of sickeningly great and exciting life the other three can only wish they had. Then Billy drops dead riding llamas in the Himalayas or flying an ostrich off a ten story building or catches a cold from a Peruvian papaya or something like that. His three childhood friends attend his funeral, subsequently ending up in their old tree house where they discover Billy has been working on the old treasure map they dreamed up as kids. He’s turned their hunt for DB Cooper’s treasure into a reality, and so to honor him the mismatched trio heads to the backwoods for a river journey that might end in a wad of cash (because getting rich is always the best way to mourn).
The details of this supposed treasure are pretty fuzzy and if you can understand them you’ve got a better attention span than me. Pick whatever you like as an excuse these boys are heading for the river. They drop in their canoe and things immediately go awry, with the treasure hunting trip quickly devolving into a serious of hilarious disasters. Without a Paddle then bombards us with tired out gags involving bears and Deliverance-like rednecks. I have nothing against stupid comedies, and did find at least a few chuckles buried in the film, they just weren’t very fresh. The movie’s biggest gags involve the bombarding of hillbillies with neatly folded bags of poo, which should give you some idea of the level Without a Paddle is going for.
A lot has been made lately out of former Ashton Kutcher sidekick Dax Shepard, who out of nowhere seems to be the new hot thing in comedic casting. Without a Paddle is his big screen starring debut, but if he’s particularly talented I don’t see it. He fares no better or worse than Green or Lillard, both of whom seem to keep getting movies without bothering to bring anything to their roles. His easy going redneck delivery I suppose is the comedic center of this film, but he’s not doing anything better than any other watered down version of Pauly Shore.
Without a Paddle isn’t a painful experience, just an extremely mediocre one. Director Steven Brill seems to be trying to say something about turning thirty and growing up, but it’s lost in the sheer pointlessness of his idiotic buddy movie. It’s lifeless, has no genuine excitement to it, and has three lead actors who just aren’t all that funny. Chock this up to another forgettable experience on Brill’s Adam Sandler stacked resume.
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