WITHOUT A PADDLE - Blu-ray review

Maybe the filmmakers should have called the picture Without a Laugh.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review both John and Hock offer their opinions on the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Shots.

The Film According to John:
"Hope springs eternal in the human breast"
--Alexander Pope

Having never before seen the 2004 comedy "Without a Paddle," I decided to watch it solely on hope. Since the film was popular enough to engender a sequel a few years later (albeit a straight-to-video sequel), I figured it was about time to watch the original and hope for the best. I wish I hadn't. For a more positive reaction to the film, I direct you to Hock's review below. He appreciated the story's humor far more than I did. For me, the film was pretty much a waste of time.

This is one of those fish-out-of-water comedies, where three young city fellows take a trip through the deep woods on an expedition of self discovery and male bonding. Everything works out well for them but not for the viewer, who must endure their boring escapades for over an hour and a half. I kept looking and hoping for a laugh that never came.

Seth Green, Matthew Lillard, and Dax Shepard play three childhood buddies who get together to attend the funeral of a mutual friend. It's the first time they've seen one another since they graduated from high school ten years earlier. They all grew up in Oregon, and once they get back there they start reminiscing and thinking out loud about all the things they planned to do but never did. One of those things was going on an expedition into the Cascade Mountains in search of D.B. Cooper's lost treasure. (You remember Cooper, the guy who highjacked a jet airliner in 1971, received a $200,000 ransom, parachuted into the Oregon wilderness, and disappeared.) The boys have a map they believe will lead them to where Cooper landed, and they figure Cooper's loot might still be lying around somewhere. So, what the heck, they figure: It's now or never; go for it.

Never mind that none of them has any experience in wilderness survival and that they will be alone and helpless in the woods for quite a while. They rent a canoe and head off down the river.

You see anything funny so far? We're twenty minutes into the picture, and there isn't even a smiley moment. The fact is, the three guys are pretty much all losers: classless, clueless, and immature. Why the filmmakers would think anyone in the audience might be in the least interested in them or their exploits is beyond me. Then again director Steven Brill also made "Little Nicky," "Mr. Deeds," and "Drillbit Taylor," so his track record maybe answers the question.

Anyway, in their wilderness adventure the three buddies experience practically every clichéd situation you can think of. First off, the filmmakers depict Oregon as Bumpkin Central. Seems a little unfair to a state that is almost an extension of California, given the number of California expatriates living up there. The film even portrays the Oregon police as redneck yokels, a sheriff stopping the three fellows for no reason other than, I guess, he thinks they look like city slickers. Personally, I've never seen an Oregonian who looked or dressed any differently than a Californian, but apparently this sheriff can tell a troublemaker when he sees one. Or three.

So down the river they go. A growling deer elicited a smile; that was the only time I can remember the slightest change in my facial expression during the film. Naturally, we get a gag about the boys trying to light a campfire with flint and stone, and then we see them playing childish tricks on one another. And there's an encounter with a bear. Same thing. Nothing humorous. Everything is just sort of dumb, bland, and meaningless.

By the time they're deep into the woods, they come across the obligatory psycho hillbillies (think "Deliverance"), followed by their meeting two gorgeous, scantily clad hippie girls living in a tree house. It's all so ridiculous and yet so humdrum, it isn't even worthy of television.

At least the hillbillies, Dennis and Elwood (Abraham Benrubi and Ethan Suplee), show a little animation in their performances and provide the only remotely interesting characters in the story. Should I even mention that Burt Reynolds makes a brief appearance as a mountain man? No? The rest of "Without a Paddle" is insipid beyond words. The PG-13 rating ensures that things don't get too far out of hand, but if the film had been a little more daring, that might have improved it.

John's film rating: 4/10

The Film According to Hock:
"All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl." --Charlie Chaplin

Apparently, director Steven Brill took the quote above to heart and made a comedy using the Oregonian woods, a loony backwoodsman and two ditzy tree-hugging blondes bombshells. Add three city slickers who are in over their heads and a pair of trigger-happy "Deliverance"-type pot farmers and you have Paramount's better-than-average comedic romp, "Without A Paddle". As evidenced by many moviegoers' tepid response to the numerous inane comedies that were released last year, good comedy is obviously harder to pull off than it actually seems. However, giving credit where it is due, "Without A Paddle" has more than its share of funny moments and also a sweet story of self-discovery and friendship to boot. Add in the abundant comedic talents of the ever-reliable Seth Green, funnyman Matthew Lillard, and newcomer Dax Shepard as an intrepid trio of treasure hunters, and you get front row seats to a wild and wacky ride through the wilderness with unfortunately some bumps along the way but also plenty of laughs.

Looking back, most of 2004 was a blur to me. How exactly did 365 days zoom by so quickly? All I can remember about "Without A Paddle" were the trailers that aired almost incessantly on television late in the summer. Although I did not hear anything much about it after that, the movie actually did pretty well at the box office, able to recoup its $20 million budget plus raking in a profit of almost twice its budget. Not too shabby for a self-styled comedy that is specifically aimed directly at teenagers and twentysomethings (which comedy isn't these days?). Helmed by actor-writer-director Steven Brill, who previously directed two of Adam Sandler's least-successful comedies, "Mr. Deeds" and "Little Nicky," "Without A Paddle" comes across as sort of a zany parody of "Deliverance" with a bit of Kevin Bacon's "The River Wild" added in for good measure.

With the spectacular woods of New Zealand standing in for the forests of the northwest United States, "Without A Paddle" has the unlikely premise of three longtime friends trying to make good on a childhood pact that they had all signed on to decades earlier. Using the real-life exploits of real-life daredevil criminal D.B. Cooper (aka Dan Cooper)--who in 1971 hijacked a commercial plane and collected a ransom of $200,000 before parachuting into the Oregonian forest and into notoriety--the writers are able to lend somewhat of a realistic backdrop to the story. Dan (Seth Green), Jerry (Matthew Lillard), Tom (Dax Shepard) and Billy (Anthony Starr) grew up together and as children, they had dreams of going on an Indiana Jones-type adventure to find D.B. Cooper and his cache of stolen money. Many years later, the kids are now all grown up (well, at least for most of them)--Dan is a neurotic and timid doctor; Jerry is a listless executive who dreams about surfing and can't fully commit to his increasingly impatient girlfriend; Tom is an aimless drifter who makes a bad habit of telling tall tales about his exploits; and Billy, the most successful among them, is a well-known world class explorer who has conquered Mt. Everest and what have you. Tragedy strikes and Billy is killed in an accident. As the other three remaining friends get together for Billy's funeral, they inevitably begin to reminisce about their childhood. Later, they find out that after all these years, Billy has continued his research into D.B. Cooper and might have pinpointed the spot where Cooper could have landed when he parachuted out of the plane. So, in order to honor the memory of their departed friend, Jerry, Tom and Dan (after much persuasion) decide to undertake one last adventure together.

Armed with the carefully plotted map that Billy compiled before his death, our three Indy wannabes travel into the Oregon backcountry and as part of any movie's ritual, entangle themselves in the usual misadventures--encounter with a marauding bear, tumbling through churning class-5 white water rapids, run-in with two psychopathic pot farmers--and also the not-so-common sight of running into a pair of sexy, hippie-like tree huggers who has built themselves a cozy tree house sanctuary (yeah right!) in the middle of the forest. Also look out for a surprise guest star who plays a crazy old kook who has been living in the forest for decades, whom the guys meet up while huddling together in order to keep warm inside a cave during a heavy downpour (I'm sure many of you have watched this scene over and over during heavy rotation of the film's trailer).

Now, I will be the first to admit that the main characters in this movie are not really very original. We've probably met them all before in many other films in the comedy genre. For instance, take Dan, who, even though is a successful doctor, has no shred of confidence in dealing with anyone on a social level. Dan is sort of a good guy geek who is sickly, gets pushed around by everyone and can't even get a date with his own nurse. Then there's the reckless and smart-mouthed Tom (essentially an anti-Dan), who has never been able to hold down a job or even say anything without lying. For example, to persuade his friends to go on this impulsive quest, Tom leads them to believe that he is an experienced Californian river guide. As for Jerry, he is more of a middle-ground character, unlike the extreme opposites like Dan and Tom. However, Jerry suffers from the common male ailment of commitment-phobia, a situation than can normally be found in any comedy. However, it is the seamless bonding between our three main actors and the abundant energy demonstrated by them that gives "Without A Paddle" an edge over your usual run-of-the-mill comedies. The audience will instantly believe that these guys have been great friends forever and their quest, however misguided, is actually a journey that will test their friendship and somehow challenge them to better themselves in many ways. I know all these may sound corny on some level but some comedies are actually not just empty shells full of fart jokes. In fact, the many gags, both physical and spoken, and the hilarious situations that these guys get themselves entwined in only makes the journey so much more enjoyable to watch.

Some might complain about the many homophobic jokes in this movie, but let's face it, this is actually a very common state of affairs in any male-dominated social setting. On some levels of friendship, guys are basically cruel to each other and may resort to alluding to the fact that their friend is somehow a homosexual. However, one must understand that at the end of the day, it is all for fun and should only be taken that way, instead of getting too uptight about being non-PC. Also, by making use of some highly appropriate music from Culture Club, .38 Special and even R Kelly, whose song "Bump 'n Grind" sets up the cave scene I described earlier so nicely, "Without A Paddle" is able to give new life to songs that, as the joke goes, contain homosexual connotations. Hey, if we can't even laugh at ourselves, then the world would be a sad place indeed. So lighten up!

While "Without A Paddle" is certainly not the best comedy film I ever seen, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I've always been a fan of Seth Green and here, he is again in his element. Although this film is fairly predictable (name me a film in any genre that isn't at least partly predictable?), there is a certain charm to how the characters interact and play off one another's comedic talents. If you are looking for some laughs on a dreary night, then a rental of this movie will be just the right antidote.

Hock's film rating: 6/10

It's hard to complain about Paramount spreading the movie over a dual-layer BD50 or using an MPEG-4/AVC codec to transfer the 2.35:1-ratio film to disc. The results are pretty good, except for the opening title credits, which the filmmakers intended to look like home movies. Colors are radiant; definition is reasonably good, even if facial details tend to be too smoothed over; and there's a touch of natural grain, just a touch, to provide a small degree of texture to the image.

I had a bit of a problem with the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound. During several scenes I found the synchronization of words and lips was off. I switched to the commentary track, which is in Dolby Digital stereo, and it worked fine. Then, thinking it might be my Panasonic BD50 player, I threw in a couple of other Blu-ray discs with TrueHD tracks, and they worked fine. But when I replayed the same offending moments in "Without a Paddle," voices were still out of sync. I dunno. Anyway, the problem quickly went away as the movie progressed, only to reappear later on. Odd, and something I've never experienced before.

When the TrueHD was behaving itself, it was OK, although there isn't a lot going on in it. Dynamics are adequate; bass can be impressive when called upon; and the rear and surround channels come to life during a few big action scenes and during a rain storm. Otherwise, you get a polished midrange response with decent front-channel stereo and clear, clean dialogue.

For bonus items we get the same things we've all seen or heard before. Nevertheless, they may be more entertaining than the feature film. To begin, there's an audio commentary by director Steven Brill, who keeps up a steady stream of facts, memories, and anecdotes about the filmmaking. Next, there's a video commentary by the cast and director, a picture-in-picture affair that plays during the movie, with the participants sitting around chatting about the film. Then, there's "MTV's Making the Movie: Without a Paddle," an eighteen-minute, standard-def promotional fluff piece; followed by thirteen additional scenes with optional director's commentary, again in standard def, totaling about twenty-four minutes; and six MTV interstitials (teaser trailers) in standard def at about three minutes.

The extras wind down with a widescreen theatrical trailer that the keep case says is in HD but isn't; a mere fourteen scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
Maybe the filmmakers should have called the picture "Without a Laugh." While there is nothing wholly offensive about it (if you can ignore the homophobic jokes Hock mentions), there is nothing in it of much value, either. It's just banal, vapid, and inane. Still, humor is where you find it, and different people will look at the same things and think them funny or not. For Hock, the film did its job. For me, not.


Film Value