Two Dramas Take on Social, Cultural Differences

Jack Nicholson did it in "As Good as It Gets," and Harrison Ford did it in "Six Days, Seven Nights," and Warren Beatty did it in "Bulworth." So shouldn't Hollywood's women get to do it for a change?

It happens in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, one of the rare movies where an older woman wins the heart of a younger man, instead of some weather-beaten male star strolling into the sunset with an actress who's a whippersnapper by comparison.

And who could blame the younger man in question? His name is Winston, he's 20 years old, and he's cooking at a Jamaican resort while deciding whether to become a doctor like his dad. That's where he meets Stella, a 40-year-old executive who's been downsized from her job and wants to forget her troubles with a few days of tropical sunshine. One conversation is all Winston needs to fall in love with this brainy California beauty, and if people worry about their ages, a look at their starry eyes will prove this is real romance, not a mere flirtation with novelty.

Based on a novel by Terry McMillan, whose "Waiting to Exhale" inspired a Hollywood hit not long ago, "Stella" appears to be aimed at the same audience of women in general and African-American women in particular. Additional box-office power may come from older women and, yes, men of all ages who find Angela Bassett, the gifted star of "Malcolm X" and "What's Love Got to Do With It," among many other films, as appealing as any star today.

Not that "Stella" stands with the season's best movies. The story doesn't hold enough surprises to justify its running time of more than two hours, and the filmmakers fall back on R-rated sensationalism more often than a genuinely mature movie would need, as if they didn't trust the central relationship to sustain interest on its own.

There are lots of lively performances, though: The cast ranges from newcomer Taye Diggs as Winston to veteran Whoopi Goldberg as Stella's best friend - and the scenery is splendid in Jamaica and San Francisco alike. First-time filmmaker Kevin Rodney Sullivan directed.

In addition to their age difference, Stella and Winston also hail from different countries, giving a touch of multiculturalism to their tale.

Cultural differences play a darker role in Return to Paradise, a new drama that raises more difficult moral issues than it's prepared to handle convincingly.

The story begins by introducing three young Americans on vacation in Malaysia, where casual drug use is among their dubious recreations. When two of them head back to the United States, the third decides to stay and pursue his dream of a career in environmentalism.

A couple of years later, the returned New Yorkers are shocked to learn that their companion was arrested on drug charges soon after their departure, and will be executed as a narcotics dealer unless they go back to Malaysia, confess that some of the drugs belonged to them, and agree to serve time in a very frightening prison. What will they do? And what would we do if we were in their position?

"Return to Paradise" asks hard ethical questions centering on trust, honesty, and self-sacrifice, and it makes them vividly real by linking them with everyday people who never planned to face them in such an urgent, unsettling way.

But what promises to be a challenging and engrossing movie is weakened by two serious flaws. One is the decision to dilute its primary issues with a trite romantic angle involving one of the New Yorkers and a lawyer (Anne Heche) representing the condemned prisoner. The other is a very weak performance by rising star Vince Vaughn as the man involved in this mistimed affair. He's supposed to be facing the most difficult crisis of his life, but through most of the story he barely manages to look nervous.

The picture takes a truly surprising turn near the end, and Joaquin Phoenix turns in such strong acting as the prisoner that he almost compensates for Vaughn's shortcomings. But ultimately "Return to Paradise" is more a squandered opportunity than an enlightening moral tale. Almost a dozen years have passed since director Joseph Ruben reached the top of his form in "The Stepfather," still one of Hollywood's most memorable thrillers. His new effort is more ambitious but a lot less impressive.

* Both films have R ratings. 'Stella' includes nudity and sex, and 'Paradise' includes violence as well. David Sterritt's e-mail address is

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