Without a Paddle (2004) / Comedy-Adventure

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, drug content, sexuality, language and crude humor
Running Time: 95 min.

Cast: Seth Green, Matthew Lillard, Dax Shepard, Ethan Suplee, Abraham Benrubi, Burt Reynolds, Rachel Blanchard, Christina Moore, Nadine Bernecker, Ray Baker
Director: Steven Brill

Screenplay: Jay Leggett, Mitch Rouse
Review published August 17, 2004

Sort of a comedic version of Deliverance, Without a Paddle is a film about lifelong friends and fond remembrances, which often flirts with becoming something worthwhile only to be undone by director Steven Brill's (Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds) tendency to play for broad laughs.  While Brill does succeed from time to time in getting those laughs, they just aren't as big as they should have been.  Despite some nice touches, Brill chose the wrong fork in the river to go down by introducing an obligatory hillbilly subplot that almost completely dominates the film once it is introduced.  Sadly, it is also the least interesting plot development, evoking very few laughs or even interesting bits.  Without a Paddle is an adventure alright, and a decent tale on friendship, but the dumb comedy syndrome sets in quickly and the promise showed in the early scenes never recovers.

Lifelong friends, Dan (Green, Austin Powers), Jerry (Lillard, Scooby-Doo) and Tom (Shepard, "Punk'd") come together when their buddy Billy dies, only to hit the old spots of their youth and remember the adventures they've had together.  One such adventure involved their adolescent quest to recover the lost loot of a fabled criminal parachutist who apparently went down with about $200,000 cash up in the woods of Oregon, never to be heard from again.  While the other boys quickly outgrew their desire to search for the treasure, Billy continued the quest, drawing up as much information as he could, including a highly detailed map of the area where he thinks the money has to be.  The three remaining friends decide to go on one last adventure together to commemorate their lost friend by taking a trip through the rivers and woods of Oregon to find the object of Billy's obsession, but the local yokels prove to be weird in a dangerous way, and peril lurks at nearly every turn.

Without a Paddle falls into a coming-of-age subgenre where the men involved don't actually mature until they are well into their adulthood, and while it stays in this mode, there are some amusing moments spent reminiscing about the music and movies of the Eighties, as well as some lighthearted scenes of male bonding in the mix.  It recalls the likeable formula of City Slickers, with the same kind of crazy supporting characters, diverse locales, and moments of danger that draw the men closer together, but it does fall short by not having the same quality of acting or delivering as many earned moments of genuine laughter.  The set-up is fine, drawing you into the lead characters and their impending adventure, but what the film lacks is a sense of importance and awe, as done so well by the Spielberg produced films from which it is so inspired (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Goonies).  

Alas, once the boys get to the backwoods country, it falls into familiar trappings, with a crazy coot sheriff and some gun-toting, pot-farming hillbillies to fire countless rounds of ammunition at the hapless trio throughout the rest of their trip.  Further distractions include a pair of nature-worshiping hippie women, and a small role from a wasted Burt Reynolds (Smokey and the Bandit, Cannonball Run) as a crusty mountain man, his appearance here an obvious Deliverance gag that never really develops. 

Although it has its moments, Without a Paddle ultimately disappoints by not being nearly as good as the tales from which it draws inspiration.  My recommendation -- if you absolutely must see it, -- wait for video, and fast forward through every scene in which the hillbillies rear their ugly heads.  Without a Paddle is also without solid laughs, without fresh characterizations, and for much of the running length, without much of a clue.

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo