Brokedown Palace
directed by Jonathan Kaplan
(20th Century Fox, 1999)

Hawaii is just too middle-class. So when high school pals Alice and Darlene want one last hurrah after graduation, wild gal Alice (Claire Danes) talks goody-goody Darlene (Kate Beckinsale) into dropping their planned trip to Hawaii and heading off instead to adventures in -- Thailand. And, as improbable as that scenario is, it's just the first in a long, long string of events that make no sense in Brokedown Palace.

It's an odd cross between Dawson's Creek and Midnight Express that's even more long-winded and unbelievable to the point of insult than you might at first believe possible. We see Alice and Darlene chatting in their pink maid uniforms as they clean a hotel room. They apparently earn enough money in this part-time job to fly off to Thailand and, after they arrive, we are treated to a 15-minute music-video montage of Alice and Darlene giggling in the marketplace, giggling as they travel city streets, giggling as they pay a visit to a place of worship while people pray around them.

OK, so they're on their own for the first time (at least Darlene is). They're heady with the excitement of what they've pulled off on their parents, who have no idea where they really are. Still, that's no excuse for screenwriter David Arata and director Jonathan Kaplan to allow this to go on and on.

Kaplan directed 1988's harrowing The Accused; he studied with Martin Scorcese. He should know better.

From here, the plot really starts to zip. They're befriended by Nick Parks (Daniel Lapaine), who seduces one (or is it both?) of them. He's some sort of businessman with admittedly no visible source of income. He offers them tickets to meet him for a weekend in Hong Kong. They accept. The girls head to the airport, where their bags are searched and ... drugs! They're arrested, and thrown into a Thai prison.

Their only hope (besides high school friends who -- really -- come to visit them in prison and smuggle in bribery cash in a padded bra) is Yankee Hank (Bill Pullman), an American lawyer working in Thailand. The prison has the obligatory mean guard (only one), the spiteful fellow prisoner (again, only one), and a couple of other foreigners who give them helpful advice and support. It's like a freshman dorm, only with less food.

Did Nick plant the dope? Did Alice knowingly carry it for him? Can the high Thai official in cahoots with Nick be bribed? Will the king pardon them? At this point, Danes is in her acting element, but we no longer care. Her last 10 minutes are a great performance, including a self-sacrificing speech to the king that is utterly out of step with the rest of the movie.

Beckinsale, wonderful as Hero in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, is here given nothing to work with as the passive Darlene. Danes now is working with Oscar winner Jodie Foster and Oscar nominee Russell Crowe on Flora Plum. We can only hope the role serves her better than Brokedown Palace did.

[ by Jen Kopf ]

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