"Return to Paradise" presents the kind of moral dilemma that might be presented to you on some drunken night with a bunch of friends. I mean, Would you go to prison in another country for years, in order to save a friend from death, if you weren't being forced to? The problem for the characters in this film, of course, is that the question is not hypothetical, and that makes the answer all the more impossible.
The movie opens in Panang, Malaysia, where 3 friends, Sheriff (Vince Vaughn), Tony (David Conrad) and Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix) are enjoying a lengthy stay overseas, viewing all their activities through a casual, day to day haze of drugs. "We've got it all here," Sheriff says, describing the warm ocean water as "God's own bathtub." Eventually, months later, Tony and Sheriff decide to head back stateside to pick up where they left off. Lewis, however, remains behind, planning to join an effort to free apes from captivity.
Through a series of events, Lewis is arrested for drug possession after police discover him with 100 kilos of hashish that the 3 men had purchased. He is charged with drug trafficking, a capital crime in Malaysia, and is sentenced to death by hanging. After two years in prison his last appeal has just been rejected and he is within a week of his sentence being carried out.
The other two men were unaware of this, but Lewis's attorney, Beth (Anne Heche) approaches the men with the news of Lewis's situation. She has forged a deal with the Malaysian authorities: if at least one of the two others will return with her to Malaysia and accept their share of ownership of the hashish, Lewis will not have to die. The prison term for both men returning would be three years. If only one returns, he will have to serve six.
Although Vaughn and Conrad play the men with the impossible decision to make, Anne Heche is the one whose performance carries the film. She doggedly appeals to both men's sense of morality, and there is a possibility that she may go too far sometimes in her methods. The film doesn't paint her as a heroine but as a woman willing to do almost anything to save Lewis's life, and perhaps will cross lines even she can't fully appreciate. Vince Vaughn is also very good and you can't help but feel for this guy throughout the film, especially the end. Many have said that Joaquin Phoenix "steals the movie", and he was very good, but keep in mind he's only onscreen for 10-15 minutes or so out of the entire movie. David Conrad plays sort of the odd man out in all this even though his decision is just as important as Vaughn's. Still Conrad was pretty good throughout. Vera Farmiga before she started getting bigger roles was great in her short time on screen. Jada Pinkett Smith is pretty annoying but that was the role she was obviously going for so it worked well.
The movie is determined to be evenhanded in its position on all of this, and firmly leaves the audience to decide what is right. This leaves us in suspense about exactly what choices the characters will make, and what the end result will be. Movies like this can be a real treat because of how they force you to think about the issues they present, and in the end, if given the decision that Tony and Sheriff had to make, I can honestly say I would not have an answer.