Tom (Dax Shepard), Jerry (Matthew Lillard), and Dan (Seth Green, who should know better) are three lifelong friends mourning the loss of a close confidant. In revisiting their childhood, the trio comes across a map that leads to the treasure of famed thief D. B. Cooper. Facing a 30th birthday life crisis, they decided to go after the loot, launching a canoe into Oregon waters and ending up down the barrel of two hillbilly pot farmers, the object of a motherly bear’s affection, and lost in the expansive wilderness in their underwear.
“Without a Paddle” starts off on a fairly ominous note when the opening credits present the three lead actors, Seth Green, Matthew Lillard, and Dax Shepard, as our comedic guides through this nonstop journey of stale, stolen, and flat-out unfunny jokes and situations. We’ve just begun, and already we’ve hit the bottom of the barrel.
Shepard is the most curious member of the trio, having found himself a thimble of fame swinging from Ashton Kutcher’s genitals on his wacky “Candid Camera” rip-off show, “Punk’d.” Shepard gets his chance in the spotlight with “Paddle,” and the results are deeply discouraging. I’m sure Shepard was probably the funniest guy at his frat house, but in front of a camera, his smart-alecky, elongated articulation and timing makes this already threadbare comedy even more agonizing, especially as director Steven Brill boldly gives Shepard the go-ahead to ad-lib as much as he wants. Yeesh. Normally this type of slacker/stoner role goes to Lillard, who, in “Paddle,” is given the unpleasant role of “Mr. Exposition and Dr. Message.” At least Lillard isn’t the actor the film relies on for laughs; that’s a nice change of pace.
It’s easier to think of “Paddle” as a grown-up (in age only) version of “The Goonies,” complete with a treasure map, a “One-Eyed Willy” of their own in D.B. Cooper, and love of all things 80s (Culture Club gets knocked around a bit). Screenwriters Jay Leggett and Mitch Rouse lazily try to craft a series of adventures together for the movie; lamely siccing mulleted hillbillies on the trio, making them fight bears, and fall off of cliffs into rivers numerous times. That seems to be it for the fun.
The gags are even more miserable, making fun of the obsolete (take that, Creed!), passe geek-chic (“Star Wars” gets a heavy amount of screentime), marijuana comedy (the boys falls into a burning field of pot), a you-gotta-be-kidding-me “Matrix” sight gag (5 years later, and Hollywood is still making fun of bullet-time), and ending with the tried and true scene for any awful filmmaker: the trio dropping paper bags of human excrement on the bad guys. Oh, joy. Brill has been avoiding any real culpability for his hackish skills by hitching his trailer to Adam Sandler for his earlier pictures (“Little Nicky” and “Mr. Deeds”), but in “Paddle,” Brill demonstrates an unease with mounting a carefully nuanced bit of business, or even casting genuinely funny people in his movie. If this is the best Brill can do outside the comforting breast of Adam Sandler, he should turn around and sprint back to his mentor.
If you can believe it, “Without a Paddle” actually fancies itself quite a well-intentioned movie by prying a message about the true meaning of friendship away from all the homophobic subtext and steaming bear poo gags. “Paddle” wants to teach the masses that it isn’t about the treasure; it’s whom you’re making the journey with. Aw, that’s sweet. Too bad I was mentally arranging a grocery list when they got around to this part.Rating: D-