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"Without A Paddle" Not Worth the Obvious Bad Puns its Title Begs For

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*1/2Sometimes the Hollywood studios make life a whole lot easier for us movie reviewers. When your silly little road-trip-down-the-river comedy, directed by the man who helmed "Little Nicky" and "Mr. Deeds" no less, is called "Without a Paddle," it just makes things way too easy. But this trifle of a film is so mild and inoffensive that it is almost not worth it to pile on the bad puns. Just because the movie's title is begging for it doesn't mean that I must oblige with some lame quip about how "Without a Paddle" is totally 'up the creek.' I could say that "Without a Paddle" is 'without a heartbeat' or 'without a clue.' Or I could write about how the movie 'treads water in a sea of muddy mediocrity with little hope of rescue.' But I won't. It's actually too bad that it didn't share a title with Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous," because a more perfect name for this film would be "Almost Funny." This movie is so bland that I've just made punny off the name of a completely unrelated film. Matthew Lillard, Seth Green, and Dax Shepard play three childhood friends nearing or at thirty years old who are reunited unexpectedly at the funeral of Billy, their snow-boarding, thrill-seeking pal. Lillard is the commitment-challenged surfer, Shepard is the money-challenged gambler, and Green is the uptight doctor who can't get laid. A pact formed with Billy when they were kids soon sets them off on a journey to find the unaccounted for stolen money of famed airline hijacker D.B. Cooper. Interesting enough, sure, until they actually set out on the trip. From there on out, the film glides along on aimlessly 'without a paddle' (sorry, it's just too damn easy), with only the natural likabilty of its stars to hold any sort of interest whatsoever. Director Steven Brill simply cannot make anything funny of one tired set-up after another. The rare moments when something amusing actually happens seem to have come from casual, improvised dialogue from one of his stars. One positive he can take from making this movie, I suppose, is that he knows when to cut his losses and quickly end a scene. The pace is quick, because Brill is in a hurry to let his poor actors try to squeeze mileage out of whatever tedious gag is up next. How do the writers expect us to laugh at such backwoods cliches as crooked sheriffs, redneck thugs (who shoot first and ask questions later), and touchy-feely hippie chicks, without giving any of them anything funny to do? The appearance of these old stand-bys alone doesn't justify their existence in this movie! Another sign that your film is grasping for the elusive funny straw is when the late quarter appearance of Burt Reynolds as a crazy mountain man with a less believable make-up job than the Wayans brothers' "White Chicks" is turned into a major selling point. Are we supposed to think that simply the appearance of an actor from the now-legendary wilderness nightmare "Deliverance" is enough to elicit laughs in a movie that's also set in the woods? I guess so, because nothing Reynolds does in his whopping ten or fifteen minutes of screen time is even remotely funny. Maybe they should have cast Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox as dueling banjo players, squealing like pigs. The strange thing about "Without a Paddle" is this- where most cheesy youth-oriented comedies would turn up the gross factor and dumb down even more for cheap jokes, this movie instead tries to neatly tie up each of the guys' simple, one-dimensional conflicts. It's an attempt to concentrate on the characters, and a different approach that unfortunately still doesn't improve the film. It turns out that the ill-fated trip was less of a madcap laugh riot, and more of a voyage of tepid self-discovery. A self-discovery that we could see coming from the first introduction of Lillard, Green, and Shepard's characters. "Without a Paddle" is just plain boring. And if you're hoping for the big mystery concerning D.B. Cooper and the missing cash to resolve in a clever way, then look elsewhere, because that plot element is just like everything else in the movie- a lukewarm letdown.

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