Before they're done, the dorky heroes will find themselves freezing their butts off in a mountain cave, discover the skeleton and parachute of D.B. Cooper, and, in the ultimate expression of the movie's notion of humor, bomb the cartoonish bad guys with bags of human dung. By the third reel of this thing, you may feel like they've scored a bull's-eye on you too. Where are the murderous forest spirits of The Blair Witch Project when we really need them to clean house?
The perpetrators of this crime against the funny bone include director Steven Brill, whose overgrown-kid credits already include the Adam Sandler vehicles Mr. Deeds and Little Nicky, and a couple of screenwriters, Jay Leggett and Mitch Rouse, who go in for ancient gags like fierce guard dogs disabled by pot and the discomfort of horny boys who must huddle together for warmth. Every situation, every bit of dialogue, comes straight out of the Big Book of Movie Clichés.
From the moment, early on, when the three principals tumble over a waterfall in their frail canoe and bust it into kindling, veteran moviegoers will see that Paddle was inspired -- in a trashy, no-conscience kind of way -- by the Hollywood classic Deliverance. John Boorman's harrowing misadventure film also took place in the wild, of course, and it also featured youngish men going through rites of passage. But that's where the similarities end -- despite the presence here of Burt Reynolds as the bearded mountain man. This is doubtless intended as a tongue-in-cheek homage to the beefy actor's memorable turn three decades ago as the machismo-fueled outdoorsman in Deliverance. But a well-meant echo does not a movie make. In fact, the inbred banjo duelists who terrorized the city slickers in Boorman's film might do well to bring suit against Without a Paddle's two villains (played by Ethan Suplee and Abraham Benrubi) for, if nothing else, bad imitation.
Meanwhile, we must endure the alleged heroes. There's Tom (Dax Shepard, of TV's Punk'd), a burned-out businessman who can't cope with marriage; Jerry (Matthew Lillard, of Scream and Scooby-Doo fame), a former troubled child who now poses as a tough guy; and Dan (Seth Green, of the Austin Powers series), a puny doctor with a list of phobias that includes cellophane and, apparently, fresh air. Lost in the Cascades and under fire from both man and nature, these three are meant to be questing souls at a crossroads, trying to learn the meaning of life while we yuk it up. But the jokes are all so threadbare -- bears munching on cell phones, hippie chicks named Flower and Butterfly (Rachel Blanchard and Christina Moore) rhapsodizing about the sky -- that we can see the punch lines a mile away. What's worse, the heroes are so unappealing (one of them even does annoying C3PO imitations) that you may start hoping that the hillbillies blow them away before they can say one more thing about friendship and growing up.
Alas, we're in for the long haul -- an interminable hour and a half -- at the end of which our boys emerge from the woods as local heroes, blessed with the newfound knowledge that the real treasure in life "is just being alive." Good God, let's hope that doesn't signal a sequel.