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Brokedown Palace

Life in prison

By Roy Rodenstein

staff writer

Directed by Jonathan Kaplan

Written by Adam Fields, David Arata

With Claire Danes, Kate Beckinsale, Bill Pullman, Jacqueline Kim, Lou Diamond Phillips, Daniel LaPaine

What price innocence? This is the question posed by Brokedown Palace, a slight story of slackers who land behind bars in the most unlikely of places. Alice Marano (Claire Danes) and Darlene Davis (Kate Beckinsale) are best friends for life. They’ve only made it out of high school, but that “for life” part will be severely tested, in several senses, before the movie is over.

Bored by summer doldrums and summer jobs, Alice and Darlene tell their parents they’re going to visit Hawaii -- but instead set off to Thailand, lured by stories of good times for cheap. On a tour that makes Thailand look like just another village from a Disney theme park, they partake of quirky local traditions. Things only go downhill when Alice -- of the two, the known troublemaker -- invites Darlene to sneak into a glamorous hotel to swim and put drinks on random rooms’ tabs. Caught in a lie, their tab is covered by a suave Australian named Nick Parks, who takes them dancing and asks them to join him in Hong Kong. Things unravel at the airport, where a swat team finds drugs in Alice’s backpack, and soon a judge gives both girls 33-year prison terms.

In these opening minutes, the most entertaining scene occurs when Darlene finds a roach in their cheap hotel room. Sadly, the rest of the movie hardly improves on that. Indeed, Brokedown Palace serves as a study in muddled, ineffectual drama. For starters, a voiceover by Alice provides the film’s set-up in the form of a tape being listened to by Yankee Hank (Bill Pullman), the lawyer the girls are trying to recruit. Poor Pullman can only nod goofily at the droning, off-topic ramblings on the tape, which are really meant for the viewers in the theater. Similarly, two characters in Brokedown Palace, the women’s prison, appear to have been created solely to advance the plot more quickly. There is also the token unfriendly prisoner who loves to cause trouble for the two girls -- and for no one else.

The simplistic melodrama doesn’t end there. Alice keeps an irrelevant fact from Hank, but he gets angry about it. Then Darlene finds out and gets literally sick from rage, while Alice waits several days -- until the director decides that was enough time for the fight-between-best-friends sequence -- to tell Darlene she misunderstood. Another cute trick is how the girls suddenly can speak Thai -- but the scenes of cultural acclimation, potentially very interesting, are not shown at all, and nothing whatsoever comes of their newfound abilities.

Narrative is just one of the film’s many problematic areas. The trial scenes are full of plot holes, such as the fact that nobody even thinks of calling the primary eyewitness to corroborate a part of the girls’ story. In jail, Darlene writes to US representatives asking for help, but her parents, who are in the US, don’t think to try contacting those representatives.

The dialogue is no better, with marvelous lines such as “What’s up with her?!” used repeatedly. When a potential informant refuses to answer Hank’s question, Hank uses the brilliant technique of asking the question again, and this time the informant answers. Just as ridiculous are the film’s late attempts at setting up a morality play.

At least the cast saves the picture, right? Sad to say, they don’t help. Beckinsale, so perfectly cast in The Last Days of Disco, is bland and shockingly forgettable. Danes, who clearly can switch great acting on at will, can’t stop flipping the switch at the wrong times. On the plus side, Pullman is solidly enjoyable as the charming lawyer Yankee Hank Greene, who, while speaking to the girls’ parents on the phone, scribbles a figure for how much he can extort -- and knocks it down repeatedly as he realizes they can only afford chump change. Jacqueline Kim as Yoon, Hank’s Thai wife, is refreshing in the movie’s only fully convincing performance.

As deplorable as Brokedown Palace is, its Asian setting makes for handsome, intriguing scenery. In addition, there is a single highly poignant scene in which friends from the States visit the girls and, yelling across the moat that separates them, tell how bored they are in college and at the mall. With characterization off on a vacation of its own, though, it’s impossible to care for long. If the film has any points to make, it appears to be a vague criticism of the slackerdom of youth. Director Kaplan (The Accused) could have painted a stirring portrait, but instead has made one which is merely slackerish, thus suffering from the very malaise it addresses.