As Ticket to Paradise was crafted by the same writer/director who previously brought us Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again, it seems perfectly on-brand that we should have a romcom about family hijinks at a wedding in an exotic location. And of course I had to see the movie at a time when my own home and family are obsessed with preparations for an imminent wedding. As of this typing, my sister is bringing her fiancee home so they can be married in only a few short days.

So this one goes out to Deb and Michelle. I love you both.

Our premise begins with Lily Cotton, played by Kaitlyn Dever. Fresh out of graduating from law school, Lily and her roommate (Wren Butler, played by Billie Lourd) celebrate by taking a vacation to Bali. In short order, Lily crosses paths with Gede (Maxime Bouttier) a young and attractive local man running a seaweed farm with his family. Cut to roughly 40 days later, when Lily makes the announcement that she’s moving to Bali permanently so she and Gede can get married.

For obvious reasons, Lily’s parents (David and Georgia, respectively played by Exec Producers George Clooney and Julia Roberts) think this is a terrible idea, and thus resolve to work together in sabotaging the wedding. Just one problem: The two of them hate each other. The two of them only divorced after five years of marriage and they’ve outright fucking LOATHED each other ever since. No joke, if Gede had straight-up murdered one of Lily’s parents at the start of the movie, the other parent would’ve blessed them both on the spot and we’d have no movie.

But because we do have a movie, there must be some doubts and conflict and character growth along the way. For starters, Georgia is dating Paul (Lucas Bravo), a handsome and dashing Frenchman with a certain exotic flair, but the two of them barely ever see each other because he’s an airline pilot who’s always traveling somewhere around the world. And Georgia is entertaining the thought of marrying him while opposing her daughter’s hasty wedding to her Prince Charming. Hypocrisy, much?

More importantly, there’s the teensy little detail that David and Georgia are trying to stop the wedding to stop Lily from burning her future success and happiness. And doing that means throwing away whatever success and happiness she has in Bali right now. Even by David and Georgia’s own logic, they can’t make their daughter happy in the long run without making her miserable and heartbroken in the short term. Personally watching that unfold in front of them turns out to be a lot more difficult than either one expected.

At one point or another, all four of our main characters grapple with the simple fact that the grass is always greener on the other side. Sure, Bali is a paradise now, but would it still be so magical after living there for ten or twenty years? Gede and Lily might be enough for each other right now, but for how much longer? Obviously, David and Georgia are well-acquainted with the process of falling madly in love only to crash out of it just as suddenly.

Familiarity breeds contempt, but then again, it doesn’t always have to. David and Georgia themselves are a great case in point, as the both of them start out visibly uncomfortable in the culture of Bali and genuinely come to love the place as the film continues. I might add that this culture clash is a central part of the film’s humor, so expect a lot of cringe-worthy jokes about rich entitled white people making asses of themselves while adapting to a culture full of brown people.

Incidentally, I was curious to see if anyone of South Asian descent had any objection to the film’s portrayal of Balinese culture. While this hasn’t attracted any major social media backlash that I’m aware of, I did find an article speculating on the movie’s “colonial gaze that reduces places and people merely as a landscape for Western characters to stand out or assert agency; this gaze depends on the invisibility of labor of local people and the exploitation of natural resources to support tourism.” All fair points.

Though from what I can tell, it appears that more people are upset by the casting of French-Indonesian Bouttier in a solidly Balinese role. The film was also shot in Australia, so there’s that.

But I digress. Let’s get back to David and Georgia and their failed marriage.

It’s indisputably true that David and Georgia are trying to steer their daughter away from making the same mistake they did and rushing into a marriage that left them alone and miserable for over twenty years. But you know what else came from their marriage? Their daughter. David and Georgia hate each other more than anything, but they each love Lily more than the world. They could never have one without the other, and there’s a strong sense that they’ve never had to deal with that until now.

Of course it’s entirely possible that Lily and Gede are making a hasty and terrible mistake that they may regret for the rest of their lives. But even if that’s true, so what?! Even in the worst of all worst-case scenarios, Gede can always go back to his loving family and his seaweed farm in the middle of paradise. And it’s not like Lily’s renounced her law degree, she can go back to the States and pick up where she left off at any time. But what the both of them have right here and now will never come again. And in between now and whenever this ends will be a long string of magical memories that they’ll never get another shot at.

As much as David and Georgia obsess over the terrible accident of their marriage, they keep forgetting the part afterward where life goes on. They’re still alive, still successful, and the only reason they’re not happy is because they just won’t fucking let go. They need to find closure somehow, and it’s anyone’s guess as to what that will take. But if it means accepting that they did indeed have good times together, while also accepting that those good times will never come again, that might be a good start.

It might help even more if the two of them stopped lamenting over all their wasted years and came to realize that maybe their best years are still ahead of them. They could take a lesson from their own daughter and seize whatever happiness they can when the opportunity arises. As the characters themselves so aptly put it, “Why save the good stuff for later?”

All these themes are poignantly and thoughtfully expressed in a way that makes for a delightfully sweet little character drama. Which is why it’s so regrettable that the film was made and marketed as a comedy. Sorry, but the humor is so awkward and forced that it’s cringe-inducing more than it’s funny. Looking at the premise, the plot, the cast, and the themes, everything about this movie screams “dramedy”. This really should’ve been a drama with occasional comedic elements — doing it the other way around feels wrong and imbalanced.

The cast is a huge part of this. Sure, Kaitlyn Dever, Billie Lourd, and Maxime Bouttier all do a fantastic job with what they’re given. And of course the show belongs to Clooney and Roberts — the both of them are so inherently likeable and their chemistry so thoroughly battle-tested, the both of them could maintain audience sympathy and sell themselves as a plausible romantic item even with their knives at each others’ throats. That’s exactly what this movie needed.

Even so, I can’t shake the feeling that this isn’t the best work these same actors could’ve done with this material. If this exact same script had been made as a dramedy, this exact same cast would’ve knocked it out of the park. Hell, literally the only thing anyone had to do was put Alexander Payne (Clooney’s old work buddy from The Descendants) in the director’s chair and we could’ve had an Oscar contender on our hands!

As it is, Ticket to Paradise is a perfectly fine romance, but it’s too jokey to work as a drama and not funny enough to work as a comedy. It falls into a forgettable middle ground, which works well enough for a light and breezy romcom. But dammit, a movie with such a great cast and so many themes fertile for character drama should’ve been something more.

On the other hand, we’re going into peak horror movie season in a year already overcrowded with great horror. And Oscar season starts in earnest this coming weekend, with what’s sure to be a heartbreaking biopic about freaking Emmett Till. In that context, there’s definitely a place for a bit of light and breezy counter-programming. On those grounds, I can happily give the film a recommendation.

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