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Dustin Putman

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Without A Paddle (2004)
1 Stars

Directed by Steven Brill
Cast: Seth Green, Matthew Lillard, Dax Shepard, Ethan Suplee, Abraham Benrubi, Burt Reynolds, Rachel Blanchard, Christina Moore, Ray Baker, Bonnie Sommerville, Anthony Starr, Bart the Bear
2004 – 95 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for drug content, sexual material, language, crude humor, and some violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 21, 2004.

Imagine what 1985's "The Goonies" might have been like had it featured three 30-year-olds, a toxic script, and no creativity, or what 2004's "Garden State" would have turned into had Zach Braff not had anything insightful to say about coming-of-age and finding purpose in a young adult's life. Take those two notions, mix in the low level of humor of one of Adam Sandler's flat early efforts like 1995's "Billy Madison," and out pops "Without a Paddle," a faux-sentimental comedy that not only isn't funny, but half the time appears to have forgotten to insert the joke.

Childhood pals Dan (Seth Green), Jerry (Matthew Lillard), and Tom (Dax Shepard), now 30, are shaken to their cores when the fourth member of their old quartet, the free-spirited Billy (Anthony Starr), dies in an untimely parasailing accident. Struck by the way time has passed them by without them having reached a number of their goals and yearning to have one last wild weekend together, Dan, Jerry, and Tom set out into the Oregon wilderness with a scrappy treasure map in hand. Their fun-filled canoe trip takes a quick turn for the worse when they lose their transportation, are attacked by a bear, and are hunted down by a pair of marijuana-growing, backwoods rednecks, Elwood (Ethan Suplee) and Dennis (Abraham Benrubi). Amidst it all, the three friends discover that the things they treasure most have been right in front of them all along.

Directed by Steven Brill (2002's "Mr. Deeds"), "Without a Paddle" is a lugubrious big-screen turkey that can't even hold a candle to the other recent "dumb" comedies of its ilk, like "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" and "Eurotrip." Those aforementioned efforts garnered some hearty laughs and worked occasional smart writing into their otherwise low-class order of gags. As written by Jay Leggett and Mitch Rouse, "Without a Paddle" is just plain stupid, pandering unsuccessfully to audiences with one pedestrian comic bit after the other. Its physical humor, which ranges from throwing feces onto people's heads from treetops to getting carried off by a bear and being expected to hibernate with it, is flimsy even by the limited standards of the genre. The one-liners aren't much better, leading the viewer to question how such lame material made its way out of the first draft—unless it was the first draft that was used as the shooting script, a real possibility. Things finally settle down near the end, but it is in the name of corny, sermonizing talks about the value of life, all of them unconvincing and none of them inspirational.

The three actors who make up the trio—Seth Green (2003's "The Italian Job"), Matthew Lillard (2004's "Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed"), and Dax Shepard (MTV's "Punk'd")—are all adequate and have been good in the past, but not even the best thespians could save such a hopeless script from cinematic doom. Mostly, they are asked to play types. Green's Dan is short and a hypochondriac doctor, to boot. Lillard's Jerry is stuck in a boring office job when his real passion is in surfing. He also has a nagging on-and-off girlfriend (Bonnie Sommerville) so intolerably written that it boggles the mind why he would want to get back with her, and why audiences would want him to. And Shepard's Tom is the outspoken player who lies to his friends in order to mask his unhappiness in where he stands in his own life.

As the bumbling redneck villains hot on their trail, Ethan Suplee (2004's "The Butterfly Effect") and Abraham Benrubi (2003's "Open Range") are thoroughly unpleasant in an ongoing subplot that takes up too much screen time and goes nowhere special. They attribute the only laugh in the whole movie, however, a gag involving '80s group Culture Club, but it definitely isn't worth suffering through the rest to get to. Finally, Burt Reynolds (2001's "Driven") adds a touch of class to his small role as mountain-man Del Knox, eliciting something in the way of actual character weight to a part that was likely meant to be little more than a stereotype.

"Without a Paddle" attempts to be nostalgic in its portrait of three friends reminiscing about their childhood—an '80s song here, a "Star Wars" action figure there—but all angles of said subject have been captured with far more accuracy and depth in countless past cinematic walks down memory lane. Mostly, "Without a Paddle" is content to reach for puerile, tone-deaf comedy sketches and virtual stick figures posing as real people with real problems. When it reaches for schmaltz, it crash-lands in shame; director Steven Brill doesn't prove that he knows the first thing about legitimate human emotions. To be fair, he's just as lost in the woods on how to make a comedy with laughs. "Without a Paddle" is destined to be forgotten by the public in a matter of weeks, and it's just as well.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman