It’s been over 20 long, sad years since Julia Roberts last starred in a romantic comedy — and it often feels like it’s been almost as long since anybody has made a good one. Something so easy to enjoy is so hard to get right — like, you could argue, all the most precious relationships in this sorry world — and what a miracle for a modern pioneer of the genre to still have the grace to resurrect it with “Ticket to Paradise.”
That’s not to say all hope is lost without Roberts, but it’s so hard these days to be optimistic about pure, sugary, original, earnest escapism. Roberts sells it. In a digital age defined by broken brains having spent too much time on the internet tearing down anything that tries to be nice, romance is almost always undercut by some kind of self-awareness or cynicism to prove you couldn’t possibly be so naive as to buy this really sweet thing — or, God forbid, it swings too far the other way and you’re trudging through treacle for days.
The only person beyond Roberts who could be trusted to make a good, true, brave romantic comedy the way they used to make ‘em is the one man who has, in cinematic terms, really moved mountains. This man, of course, is Ol Parker.
Plenty of people have argued that romantic comedies hinge entirely on the chemistry of their central couples, and “Ticket to Paradise” is certainly blessed with that kind of pair, as Roberts plays high-flying art expert Georgia, alongside the actress’ longtime friend and co-star George Clooney as her ex-husband, the stubbornly enigmatic David (It’s a bit of a joke at this point to say that Roberts and Clooney are still some of the best actors of their generation, but it’s just nice to confirm that it’s true in a way that really can only be understood by that strange alchemic feeling that suddenly comes over your tear-ducts, against all odds.)
But such blinding star power is often wielded misguidedly, feeding into winking nostalgia and self-referential ego stroking as a triumph in itself, opposed to letting these fine actors simply do the work that got them to this point. And Parker, as the filmmaker’s magnum opus “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” proved, is the one of the few working filmmakers today capable of doing that.
Meryl Streep notoriously said throughout her entire career that she would never do a sequel, and yet Parker convinced her to return to the ABBA valentine franchise as a ghost version of her character, the magnanimous Donna Sheridan, from the first film. That sequel is one of the most outlandish, sincere, strange, and entertaining romantic comedies since, well, probably something like “My Best Friend’s Wedding” was. It is an original piece of writing only using a handful of ABBA lyrics to create a far-fetched, yet completely magnetic story of motherhood and romance on an exotic island where anything feels possible and no dance move is too embarrassing.
Like that film, “Ticket to Paradise,” miraculously, has it all. It could never have been made by anybody else.
The film sees Georgia and David begrudgingly travel halfway across the world together to stop their beloved daughter Lily (the always impressive yet understated Kaitlyn Dever), who is hopelessly in love with Gede (Maxime Bouttier), a young seaweed farmer she just met in Bali, from making the same mistake they think they did when they got married 25 years prior. It’s about taking care of those you love, learning to forgive yourself, and embracing the completely terrifying notion of letting yourself be happy for a minute, even if there’s no guarantee of how long it’ll last.
Much of the charm of “Ticket to Paradise” comes from knowing exactly how this story will end — what would a good romantic comedy be without a guaranteed happy ending? — without being totally certain of the journey to get there, because of the originality in the script. Not so much in the quippy improvised dialogue (which Clooney almost definitely prides himself on basically having invented) or loveably familiar jokes (although there have been countless drunken dancing scenes destined to ridicule anybody over the age of 30, it’s still so annoyingly funny when these guys do it), but in all the careful detail that comes from letting such a talented group of storytellers bring their own romantic wisdom and faith to another fictional template.
It’s the way Parker knows exactly when to give Roberts and Clooney their own individual, long close-ups without needing fanfare or irony, or too many set-pieces to remind you that this is money being well spent. It’s when Roberts’ immaculately tailored wardrobe has been given so much care to draw a smart, sharp woman with two decades of regret and guilt and self-preservation that it can all be understood in the way a denim jumpsuit is cut across her shoulders. It’s the fact that there is just one line in this film about age, as “Ticket to Paradise” is much more interested in the unique pleasures of the here and now, rather than dwelling on what could have been or what once was.
Although the golden age of the romantic comedy might be behind us, the single greatest joy of “Ticket to Paradise” comes from the unwavering belief that a happy future still is possible. Some of it might sound trite in a month, a year, a decade, but that trust in fleeting happiness as something worth jumping into seaweed-heavy waters for is a breath of fresh air. It tells overachieving students and desperately impressive daughters like Lily that their lives won’t end if their careers do. It tells embittered divorcés like Georgia and David that even after everything has burnt down, you can always re-build.
It tells a tired, sad audience that the overdone notion of the “feel-good” movie isn’t dead after all — that there really is a pretty great ticket out of here, and right now.
Universal Pictures will release “Ticket to Paradise” in theaters on Friday, October 21.