When 21-year-old Lamb Mannerheim (Julianne Hough) narrowly survives a tragic plane crash and suffers severe burns on her body, it is a wake-up call for her to move beyond her Christian Evangelical upbringing in small-town Montana and start experiencing what the rest of the world has to offer. Shocking her parents (Holly Hunter and Nick Offerman) and church congregation when she publicly denounces God in front of them, Lamb takes her cushy insurance payout from the accident and heads for the hedonistic neon of Las Vegas. Checking into the penthouse suite at The Palms, Lamb quickly realizes the extent with which she has been sheltered all her life and looks to check off a bucket list of sins while she's there. When she befriends bartender William (Russell Brand) and underappreciated lounge singer Loray (Octavia Spencer), they quickly take her under their wing, paving the way for a long, eventful night of exploration and self-discovery for all involved.
The directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (2007's "Juno
"), "Paradise" is an eminently compelling slice-of-life made all the more enjoyable by Julianne Hough's (2013's "Safe Haven
") irresistible turn as the sympathetic, multi-shaded Lamb. Hough's screen presence is never less than radiant, and here she delivers yet another standout performance, one both quirkily droll for its fish-out-of-water element and also quite poignant as her protagonist grows and changes throughout. Lamb's belief system is shaken at the startthe accident does not make her thankful to God, but resentful of why a greater power would punish herbut this is not an anti-faith movie as much as it is a tender character study about a young woman learning to break apart from her family and teachings in order to stand on her own for the first time and think for herself. Thus, Lamb's parents, while very religious-minded, are treated with respect and compassion as they try to hang onto the daughter they've raised while preparing themselves to also let her go.
Not to be confused with the 1982 oasis love story starring Phoebe Cates or the 1991 romantic drama with Melanie Griffith and Don Johnsonreally, why not have kept the original title, "Lamb of God?""Paradise" is thoughtfully written by Diablo Cody, nicely compact and without a moment to waste in its 86 minutes. All the same, the film does not skimp on the people on the screen, with not only Hough, but also an alluringly low-key Russell Brand (2012's "Rock of Ages
") and the always-welcome Octavia Spencer (2013's "Fruitvale Station
") given affecting personal arcs. Even Kathleen Rose Perkins (2005's "The Island
"), portraying a stripper who makes an indelible mark on Lamb's decisions late in the picture, is memorable, doing much more than anticipated with a sharply drawn supporting character. The timeline of "Paradise" is a little hinkythe bulk of the narrative takes place over a single night that seems to go on for about three daysbut this storytelling contrivance is but a tiny hiccup in a picture that creates a strong, textured sense of place while weaving a tale that, whether it is based on Cody's own experiences or not, feels somehow movingly personal.