"Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience, and if it hurts, it's probably worth it," advises a voice-over at the beginning of "The Beach." They're the words of an American adventurer named Richard, who -- as played by the newly buff Leonardo DiCaprio -- is fresh off an 18-hour plane ride and tooling around the neon-tinted streets of Bangkok, hungry for action.
Richard gets more adventure than he craves in director Danny Boyle's ("Trainspotting") uneven adaptation of Alex Garland's best-selling U.K. novel. But first he partakes of the usual tourist activities: heavy partying on the city streets, spirited toking sessions and a motel screening of "Apocalypse Now" (one of several references to that film and Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" ). His first taste of the exotic is a stiff shot of snake blood, served in a back room that's crawling with slithering creatures and vaguely dangerous ruffians.
There has to be more to paradise than poison, Richard reasons, and it's at that moment that Scottish madman Daffy (Robert Carlyle) arrives to make a boisterous, stoned-out case for the existence of true nirvana. It's a spot, he says, that's perfectly secluded from the outside world, where the white sand is pure, and vast fields of marijuana await picking. On this island (actually the lush Phi Phi Leh in the Andaman Sea), life's troubles can be forgotten.
One bloodied corpse and a cryptic map later, we're as eager to visit this utopia as Richard, who convinces Francoise (Virginie Ledoyen) and Etienne (Guillaume Canet), a cute French couple, to join him on the voyage of discovery. The trek isn't as tortuous as we might think: One long bus ride is followed by a swim across a gulf and a short, dangerous hike.
Paradise is populated by shiny, happy, glassy-eyed Deadheads, youngish adults who live in Swiss Family Robinson-style handmade wood houses. They play volleyball and sing Bob Marley tunes to the accompaniment of a lone strummer. Led by the stern Sal (Tilda Swinton), they catch and cook their own fish, supplementing that staple with rice that's transported to the mainland via dinghy -- not to mention plenty of kind buds.
Human fallibility eventually touches this artificial extended family in a manner that hints at the trials of the schoolboys in "Lord of the Flies." The group's instinct for self-preservation leads to instances of surprising cruelty, and egotism gives rise to a power struggle.
"The Beach" props up this less-than-gripping narrative with a long passage that leads us inside the frazzled mind of its protagonist. It's a psychological minefield in there, with looping, Sega-inspired sequences mixing with visions of the wasted Daffy. Will Richard return from his inner prison? There's always that possibility, as well as the potential for love to save the day. But it's worth noting that DiCaprio didn't rise to the $20 million-a-picture level by making his adoring fans watch him waste away alone.