I remember when this package deal was announced: Universal Pictures books George Clooney & Julia Roberts to theatrical Ticket to Paradise. ‘What is this the ’90s?’ one comment wrote. Indeed, this does feel like the one 90’s era vehicle these two A-List stars forgot to make. But a decade after the genre imploded and got damned to streaming with the achingly bad Bounty Hunter, the director of Mamma Mia 2, and co-stars Julia and George make the return trip seem effortless. Pleasant enough, just not enough to recommend.
There were a lot of streaming offers for this movie but the studio committed to a theatrical release on a $60 million budget, a rarity these days. Maybe it’s because studios are finally realizing the common sense in an extra revenue stream as the stock price of streaming services tumble.
I had low expectations for this film due to the D Grade it got from AV Club and the fact that it sounds like every rom-com ever written but director and co-writer Ol Parker rests the thin material on George & Julia’s small shoulders and they carry it as effortlessly as possible. A few times you might even notice an actual cinematic shot with George Clooney pondering in water. It’s not much but it’s also not complacent. Unlike this year’s Uncharted, this film has a much less cynical spirit.
Clooney is 60 and Roberts is 55 and there thankfully isn’t much of an effort beyond Hollywood good looks to make them seem younger than they are. Clooney hasn’t played a real dad much apart from his rom-com One Fine Day in 1996. I’m sure he’s happy with his career but avoiding the genre he’s destined for and constantly overreaching in other genres does get annoying. It’s good to see him play something in the ballpark. But he doesn’t do it alone. Ol Parker spun gold out of sequelizing the god-awful Mamma Mia. I have looked forward to his next project ever since which was the small hope of this film. Even back in that original article announcing the film commenters acknowledged he was a talented director. There aren’t that many directors anymore who can operate in the rom-com space and also write okay material.
The Queen of Romcoms Julia Roberts is in fewer scenes than George but she’s such a seasoned pro at this point that she makes a full meal out of it in a way few actors would. In one scene after being proposed to by her dimwitted pilot boyfriend Paul (Lucas Bravo, also good) her character conveys exasperation and worry while allowing the audience to see the humour in it without overselling it too much or becoming emotionally heavy-handed. Once again Julia despite playing a mean person, (see My Best Friend’s Wedding) remains likable because while feeling above it all, she manages to bring the audience with her. Clooney meanwhile enthusiastically dives down and is more than willing to be the butt of the joke. He gets injured and is the major failure in the relationship all without a new love interest. A late-night bar conversation with his daughter’s horny alcoholic best friend (Billie Lourde, not given enough to do) teases a more brazen plotline that only George Clooney in his age group could pull off but isn’t interested in doing.
The two leads have effervescent chemistry down to finishing each other’s sentences, it reminds you of what onscreen chemistry is supposed to be like matching the character beat for beat. But it’s too friendshippy. You don’t really buy any more like you did in Ocean’s Eleven that they might have been lovers once. They are two good-looking middle age people who as middle age people know they don’t really want to be seen kissing onscreen. Nor do they need to. Their big kiss is a wide shot cloaked in flaring sunset light.
This is an unambitious movie made by talented people aware of the bare minimum it needs to accomplish. It feels remarkably shorter despite being only 8 minutes less than this year’s earlier romance The Lost City, a movie that seemed to drag on far longer (though I liked it). This film is like the A student who is taking a B- in a course to fill a credit. Parker is an experienced and confident director. Hints about characters are checked without the need to pay them off. Lourde’s character drinks because her parents either don’t know or care that she’s gone. The would-be husband of the daughter getting married (Maxine Bouttier, also good) is clever enough to see through the divorced couple’s plan to break up their daughter’s marriage but doesn’t say anything in a scene perfectly laid out by Clooney. As the Dad, he’s uncommonly forthright in a way all dads wish they were and efficiently lays out character motivations.
And finally, the film is respectful of its cultural setting in Bali. Not because several times characters remark that they are in paradise, but because it acknowledges the local traditions are carried out by locals who are respected without being laughed at, are a central part of the film, and theme of familial bonding through the elements.