Unashamedly filching its basic premise from City Slickers, this lowbrow comedy succeeds thanks to its three protagonists, who spend the entire movie falling into holes (literally as well as figuratively) and clambering out of them. Matthew Lillard, Seth Green, and Dax Shepard play Philadelphia-based pals who decide to fulfill a boyhood ambition after another friend abruptly dies. They set out for the wilds of Oregon, ostensibly on a white-water camping trip but actually in search of lost treasure -- some $200,000 that vanished along with notorious plane hijacker D. B. Cooper, who parachuted into the deep forest and was never seen again. The main characters are sketched broadly, with basic personality traits: Lillard is more levelheaded than his two friends, the intensely neurotic Green and the cheerfully mendacious and irresponsible Shepard. There’s plenty of fish-out-of-water humor in the laughably ineffectual attempts of these three city boys to master their surroundings, and poor Green usually winds up getting the worst of every situation. Abraham Benrubi and Ethan Suplee show up as dimwitted but murderous marijuana farmers who pursue the three friends after they accidentally come across their bumper crop of pot. Even better is Burt Reynolds, no stranger to rafting adventures, who plays an eccentric recluse who may or may not be the long-missing Cooper. Burt’s surprisingly comfortable in a supporting role, although he can’t resist stealing scenes from the three leads now and then. Director Steven Brill (Mr. Deeds) obviously knew he wasn’t working with sophisticated material here, and his staging of the comedic set pieces is generally heavy-handed. But his cast is genuinely engaging and the setting offers not only visual appeal but also inspires a variety of outdoorsy gags. Without a Paddle certainly doesn’t rate a place in the pantheon of screen comedy, but it’s an amiable little farce that can be depended upon to tickle the funny bone with surprising regularity.
If you were looking to feel superior toward a movie in 2004, you had few better choices than Without a Paddle. The trailers were geared toward juvenile humor that ranged in depth from homophobia and animatronic bears to the ever-present fear of being raped by hillbillies. It's not that Without a Paddle doesn't touch on these things, it's that it's not very mean-spirited about them, and is more likeable than it should be for much of its running time. This can be credited to the snappy dialogue by Jay Leggett and Mitch Rouse, who get down a good "guys razzing each other" tone that develops the characters and makes them seem comfortable enough to be real friends. Since the actors are clearly having a good time, it's easier to swallow the ridiculous things that happen to them in the course of a camping trip gone wrong in all the predictable ways. As though to prove Seth Green is the most marketable of the stars, all the truly outrageous things happen to his character, leaving Matthew Lillard and Dax Shepard to look on and guffaw moronically. This gets tiresome, as do a bunch of set pieces that beat a sadly familiar trail. But darn it if a good soundtrack and some watchable chemistry don't push things toward a halfway-decent lowbrow comedy. In a ten-minute cameo as a mountain hermit, Burt Reynolds submits a far livelier performance than his co-starring role in The Dukes of Hazzard the following year. Also nice fun are Abraham Benrubi and Ethan Suplee as a pair of redneck marijuana farmers, with Suplee's performance serving as a template for his moony simpleton on My Name Is Earl.
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