**1/2 (out of four)
When a young woman stands in front of her church’s congregation and shouts, “There is no God!,” she’s going through some business.
Written and, for the first time, directed by Illinois native Diablo Cody (“Juno”), “Paradise” hinges on a loss of faith that even the sternest believer might have after a near-fatal plane crash. Lamb (Julianne Hough) half-jokingly calls herself a “Barbie that got melted by a lighter” and departs her small, conservative Montana town for the bright lights and bachelorette penis tiaras of Las Vegas. There, she rather quickly meets and befriends a bartender (Russell Brand) and lounge singer (Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer of “The Help”). The unlikely pairings and lost innocence in a world of wonder lend “Paradise” more than a whiff of “Wizard of Oz,” well before Lamb observes of her new surroundings, “This is so much worse than home.”
At times repeating the physical wounds while inverting the emotional redemption of “Young Adult,” Cody this time wavers between sweetness and edge without probing new ground in satirizing religiosity. Thanks to Hough’s progress as an actress and a well-bonded ensemble that mostly sells the script’s somewhat-contrived community of angels among the sinners, “Paradise” becomes fun and mildly affecting as a story about people giving each other the benefit of the doubt. Thank goodness Lamb’s pursuit of sins like booze and gambling don’t turn her into a reckless disaster; as William (Brand) notes, Lamb’s “awful at being awful,” and her debauchery registers far closer to cute/pathetic than a repressed, home-schooled saint cutting loose. Some people just don’t have it in them, though it doesn’t hurt to give it a shot.
So it’s too bad that “Paradise” and its corny finale don’t really earn their lessons, and Cody can’t totally shake the sort of overwriting that made “Jennifer’s Body” a bomb and “Juno” age rather poorly. “Last time somebody Googled me there was no Google; they had to AltaVista that [bleep]” says Loray (Spencer) in one of several lines that generate groans instead of laughs. Holly Hunter and Illinois native Nick Offerman don’t do much as Lamb’s parents, and Lamb’s observation that, “I’ve got a heart full of rage and an LL Bean tote bag full of cash” sounds like Elle Woods of “Legally Blonde” rewriting “The Blues Brothers.”
After a few consecutive disappointments, though, it’s nice to see Cody on a more entertaining track, coating the yellow brick road with her own brand of bitter glitter.
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