Though the title of summer comedy Without a Paddle implies a camping-related snafu, it's got a lot more to worry about than getting lost in the woods. By failing to satisfy any of its target audiences, it's liable to get lost in multiplexes during the August summer movie doldrums.

Beginning with some charming home movie footage, the movie quickly establishes the bond between four childhood friends from Philadelphia: Dan, Jerry, Tom, and Billy—how all American! After high school, they go their separate ways, with great expectations for high achiever Billy. Cut to ten years later. Dan (Seth Green, Austin Powers) is a hypochondriac doctor still looking for love. Jerry (Matthew Lillard, Scooby Doo) has some kind of marketing position and a girlfriend, but he'd rather be surfing and he forgets their anniversary. Tom (Dax Shepard, MTV's "Punk'd") hasn't found his occupational niche, too busy fooling around with women and schemes.

Well, at least they've GOT their paddles here!

Well, at least they've GOT their paddles here!

Then the sad news hits: Billy has died in an accident. The remaining three friends get together for the funeral and reminisce over their youth in the old tree house, where they discover that Billy was planning to get the gang together for a treasure hunt. Seems that he had pinpointed the location of D.B. Cooper in the Cascade Mountains of Lane County, Oregon. (According to historical legend, Cooper was a famed thief and airline hijacker who parachuted out of a plane over the Pacific Northwest with $200,000 in 1971, never to be heard from again.)

The three friends, now entering their thirties, recognize this is their last chance to live out their childhood adventures and finish Billy's quest. So it's off to Oregon and a canoe trip through the Columbia River valley. Three city slickers searching for treasure in the woods amid grizzly bears and crooked hillbillies? Either this is a remake of Deliverance or it sounds like we're in for some comedic mishaps. It's essentially City Slickers meets The Goonies, set in the woods.

Burt Reynolds in one of the most forgettable cameos, ever

Burt Reynolds in one of the most forgettable cameos, ever

You wish it were either of those!

I find that filmmakers' resumes are often indicative of what to expect from a movie ( is especially useful for this). Director Steven Brill is best known for two Adam Sandler comedies: the hit Mr. Deeds and Little Nicky, one of Sandler's few flops. Among the writers are Fred Wolf (David Spade comedies Joe Dirt and Dickie Roberts) and Harris Goldberg (Rob Schneider's Deuce Bigalow, Dana Carvey's The Master of Disguise). You know you're in trouble when Mr. Deeds is the strongest track record of the bunch.

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The actors fare a little better, more out of charm than laughs. Green is an up-and-coming comedic talent, and he comes off like a new generation's Michael J. Fox here, playing the lovable wimp who learns to face his fears. Lillard began his career doubtfully, but he's grown into a likeable screen presence; after his goofy, spot-on portrayal of Shaggy in Scooby-Doo, he does a good job playing the "leader" of the trio. The verdict's still out on Shepard's comedic talents. He has no other silver screen experience on his resume, and here he plays shallow and dumb with generic, slacker one-liners. Still, all three are fleshed out with some personality, and maybe that's why they're still likeable in spite of the content.

Matthew Lillard, Dax Shepard and Seth Green

Matthew Lillard, Dax Shepard and Seth Green

There are some chuckle-worthy moments in this movie. It's fun to watch them fish at night, and the resulting encounter with a grizzly bear is cute. Several jokes are made at the expense of Green's short stature with the others. And admittedly, the scene shown in commercials involving the three of them in their underwear without shelter, forced to snuggle together for warmth, is pretty funny.

Beyond all that and a few random laughs, Without a Paddle is amateur and tedious. Some of the lines are flat-out terrible. "I'm not an astronaut, I'm an American," Shepard declares after a canoe accident—it's no funnier in context. Everything bad that can happen to Green's character does with predictable results. Burt Reynolds (Deliverance, natch) is absolutely terrible in a cameo role, though it's probably because he has nothing to work with. The drug-dealing hillbillies that chase our heroes throughout the movie with automatic weapons are never funny, trying for the same cheap laughs as the bumbling robbers in Home Alone. The writers rip off the cell phone gag from Jurassic Park 3, and pay homage to the overused bullet-time effect from The Matrix. This isn't funny, it's lazy, and when the good guys start pelting the bad guys with bags of poop-I kid you not-you know that we're dealing with fourth-grade writing here.

Seth Green—walking tall and carrying a big stick

Seth Green—walking tall and carrying a big stick

Which brings us back to the question of who this movie was made for. It seems to be geared to a 30-year-old like myself with all the '80s references—Ghostbusters, Culture Club, Indiana Jones, etc.—but the humor is simply too sophomoric for most adults. And yet it's filled with mature subject matter that kids will flock to and parents will cringe over. Within a couple minutes after the film credits, we get a scene with Shepard fooling around with a girl in bed. Later, a key scene involves our heroes stumbling onto a marijuana farm. Plus, how many of today's teens will get the '80s references, or even know who D.B. Cooper is?

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The bizarre part is how often this film tries to pass itself as sweet and sincere. The script is peppered with bits of "gee whiz" dialogue. It doesn't match the behavior of the characters—"Hey look! A deer! Wow, look at that sunset. Now let's drink some beer!" Worse, this movie tries to deliver life lessons (Be thankful for what we have—a life worth living!) with all the saccharine sweetness of an after school special or a Saturday morning cartoon. I half expected one of the characters to declare "Say no to drugs, kids!" Oh right … the pot scene.

All in all, Without a Paddle is a sloppy effort, yet even a clichéd comedy could be fun if it actually delivered on laughs. It's tempting to enjoy this movie because of the proven formula of three guys wrestling with nature and their own incompetence. Instead, we're left with 30-year-olds acting like 20-year-olds for the entertainment of teens. You're better off leaving Without a Paddle up the creek.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Much is made in this movie (and others) about living life to the fullest, but it also makes the point of living responsibly. How do the characters in this movie act responsibly and irresponsibly? Are we able to live a life of carefree adventure and accountability? What determines how we should act one way or the other?

  2. How does this film teach us to be thankful for what we have? Can you think of a time a trial or struggle helped you recognize a blessing in your life?

  3. One of the film's characters ponders if there's more to life than going to work every day and developing his career. What else is there?

  4. This is ultimately a movie about deep friendships. To what lengths will you go to help out or honor a friend? Where would you draw the line?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Without a Paddle has everything except nudity and hardcore sex going on. The drug content refers to our heroes knocking back a few beers, as well as a key scene in which they stumble on a marijuana farm. The sexual material involves some brief shenanigans in bed and numerous references to genitalia of both sexes. There's plenty of PG-13 language. The crude humor deals with the sexual and the scatological—the good guys bomb the bad guys with poop in one scene. And as for the violence, it's mostly comical gunplay, though one of the lead characters graphically stitches another's wound. All of it fits within today's PG-13 standards, but suffice to say, it's too adult for kids—and too crude for many adults.

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What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 08/26/04

Steven Brill, the director responsible for such forgettable Adam Sandler flicks as Mr. Deeds and Little Nicky (films even Sandler fans avoid), is back with Without a Paddle, a wacky adventure of dumb guys drawn along into a ridiculous adventure that they—and the audience—come to regret.

"At least they appropriately named their movie," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "It really is up the proverbial creek with no means to come back down."

Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Without a Paddle is amateur and tedious. Some of the lines are flat-out terrible. This isn't funny, it's lazy, and when the good guys start pelting the bad guys with bags of poop—I kid you not—you know that we're dealing with fourth-grade writing here."

Steve Lansingh (Film Forum) says it suffers "from a severe overload of the ridiculous. It wasn't the least bit plausible. It wasn't man vs. nature, it was man vs. desperate screenwriter, throwing half-baked ideas against the screen and seeing what will stick. I stopped caring; whatever danger was coming next was bound to be over the top and yet completely harmless to our heroes. I was just numb."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) say it's "full of gross-out sight gags, generally of the scatological, stoner and slapstick variety. But, while this film is up the creek without much of a narrative paddle, it does come equipped with a surprisingly moral compass—though for much of the movie's 99 minutes its needle has a hard time finding a truly tasteful North."

Lacy Mical Callahan (Christian Spotlight) writes, "The premise of this movie is simple and good. It could have been both entertaining and fun to play out. Unfortunately, screenwriters Jay Leggett and Mitch Rouse chose to weave together a series of crude jokes; twisted, adolescent pranks; foul language and sexual perversion, with nauseating results."

Eight out of ten mainstream critics also slammed the movie.

from Film Forum, 09/02/04

Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says it "could've been a light-hearted comedy about mountain trip mishaps. Instead, it becomes a mishap. And a dangerous one at that. It gets 'lost in the woods' starting with the very first scene, bludgeoning families with profanities and vulgarities, and a barrage of sexual—and homosexual—references."

Without a Paddle
Our Rating
1½ Stars - Weak
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for drug content, sexual material, language, crude humor and some violence)
Directed By
Steven Brill
Run Time
1 hour 35 minutes
Matthew Lillard, Seth Green, Dax Shepard
Theatre Release
August 20, 2004 by 20th Century Fox
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