Writer Diablo Cody outpaces director Diablo Cody in 'Paradise' ★★

Set in Las Vegas, also known as "The People's Republic of Bad Choices" as phrased by screenwriter Diablo Cody, "Paradise" marks the Oscar-winning writer's feature directorial debut.

The movie has been kicking around since late summer on VOD and now receives a limited theatrical release. Neither train wreck nor triumph, it's proof that the author of "Juno," "Jennifer's Body" and "Young Adult" retains an ear for pungently funny turns of phrase and intriguing blends of rage and forgiveness. The film's also a reminder that pathos-inside-black-comedy is one of the hardest combinations a screenwriter can attempt.

After a fiery plane crash, 21-year-old Montana resident Lamb Mannerheim is left with a badly scarred body and millions in insurance settlement money. Her faith in her bedrock Christian upbringing shaken, she high-tails it to Las Vegas to live a little, sin a little, find out what's out there beyond her small town. "I want to be a regular American," she says.

"Dancing With the Stars," "Rock of Ages" and "Footloose" remake alum Julianne Hough plays the unfortunately named Lamb (talk about on-the-nose!), and her newfound Vegas cohorts are played by Russell Brand and Octavia Spencer.

Much of the humor in "Paradise" is built upon simple, recurring Christian-fish-out-of-water setups, with Lamb discovering various temptations so long denied her, "firewater" and "dancing with sodomites" among them. She comes to appreciate the life options laid out before her, extending far beyond a city where (as Spencer's character worries) if left to her own innocent devices, Lamb could "end up somewhere scary, like the trunk of a car. Or Circus Circus."

That's a good, old-fashioned punch line. Elsewhere "Paradise" showcases Cody's squirrelly riffs, as when Lamb, feeling herself a failure in the debauchery department, bemoans: "Bars are not fun," she says. "Bars smell like the flu. They smell like the section at the pet store where you get turtles." Again, a good line, and more or less in character. But there's a canned quality to the film as a whole.

Hough remains a game but rather colorless screen presence. Spencer and Russell bring the heart and the life lessons, dutifully. Holly Hunter and Nick Offerman portray Lamb's parents, sweetly and well, in a couple of bookend scenes. Cody's clearly more a writer than a director at this stage of her game. And "Paradise" feels like a tweener, the work of a comic stylist searching for new colors and a modulated tone.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"Paradise" - 2 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sexual material, substance abuse, some language and thematic elements)

Running time: 1:27

Opens: Friday at the AMC Loews Streets of Woodfield 20. Currently available on-demand.

CHICAGO

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