Just another (gloomy) day at the 'Beach'

Leonardo DiCaprio became a superstar in "Titanic," which became a superhit largely because of his uncanny appeal to moviegoers in general and teenage girls in particular. His fans have been wondering what he'd do for an encore, and today the answer arrives in "The Beach," an action drama so dark that "Titanic" fans may choose to swim away from it fast.

DiCaprio plays an American drifter who wanders into faraway Thailand, where he hopes to find experiences more daring and different than the usual tourist excursions. His wish comes true when a mysterious stranger tells him about a secluded island paradise that's known only to the fortunate few who have the courage and stamina to get there.

He promptly enlists a young French couple as his traveling companions, and a reel or two later they arrive at their destination, sparking a series of daunting adventures.

The best things about "The Beach" are its magnificent Thai scenery, Darius Khondji's shimmering camera work, and yes, DiCaprio's vigorous acting. Tilda Swinton shows her usual talent as the matriarch who keeps the paradise running smoothly, and Robert Carlyle makes a suitably creepy impression during his brief appearance as the map-drawing weirdo who gets the story going.

The worst things about "The Beach" are its undercurrents of xenophobia and racism, its surprisingly sour attitude - as peevish and pessimistic as "Titanic" was ripe and romantic - and its limitless penchant for borrowing from other movies.

It begins like a rehash of "Return to Paradise," evolves into a hippie version of "Lord of the Flies," and knocks off everything from "Jaws" to "The Blair Witch Project" along the way.

When all else fails, director Danny Boyle turns the whole picture into a wide-screen video game, which may earn a few laughs but does little for the picture's shaky logic and sketchy character development.

DiCaprio's charm may be enough to turn "The Beach" into a box-office winner, especially with all those waving palm trees and splashing waterfalls to set off his sparkling eyes. But its driving force is less his performance than Boyle's dour vision of the world, which he's developed in pictures like "Trainspotting" and "Shallow Grave" over the past few years.

"The Beach" gives us a hero who craves romance and novelty, then spends the next two hours whisking both out of his reach - and doing the same, regrettably, to its audience.

*Rated R; contains explicit sex, violence, and drug use.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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