George Clooney has often been named as the heir to Cary Grant’s mantle of rakish charm, and Ticket to Paradise tries to recreate the vibes of His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story with its bickering-exes-thrown-together-again plot line. Yet Ticket to Paradise doesn’t reach the heights of those essential films, resembling The Grass Is Greener or Indiscreet in quality (if we’re being generous). Like those latter, lesser Grant comedies, Ticket to Paradise coasts off of the audience’s love for its stars, reuniting Clooney with Julia Roberts for their fifth pairing and casting them as divorced parents in this rom-com. Given our decades-long affection for the actors both as individuals and an on-screen couple, we’re automatically rooting for their reunion, even if the script never earns it.
Writers Daniel Pipski and director Ol Parker fail to recapture the alchemy of those Golden Age classics, which knew how to cast Grant as the scheming but still largely lovable lead. From its first scenes, Ticket to Paradise positions Clooney as an overbearing grump of a dad who snipes at ex-wife George (Roberts), inexplicably trying in vain to tamp down everything Clooney is good at. His character, David, clearly loves his daughter, Lily (Kaitlyn Dever), but he pushes hard for her to succeed in her future career as a lawyer with little concern for what she wants.
When Lily takes a well-deserved break on a post-graduation trip to Bali with hard-partying BFF Wren (a scene-stealing Billie Lourd), Lily quickly falls for local seaweed farmer Gede (Maxime Bouttier). After a month, she emails her parents with the news that not only is she staying in Bali rather than returning to a promised job in Chicago, but she’s also marrying Gede. David and Georgia can’t agree on anything — as revealed through the cross-cutting opening scene that shows their entirely disparate views on their marriage — but they’re united in their goal to keep Lily from making the mistake they did of marrying too young. They hop on a plane to Bali, piloted by Georgia’s young French boyfriend, Paul (Lucas Bravo, cementing the affection of straight women of a certain age after co-starring in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris earlier this year). The former couple plots how they’ll break up the lovers, with tactics ranging from stealing the wedding rings to cruelly sharing a cynical view of marriage with the groom-to-be.
Ticket to Paradise never manages to be sweet, funny, or nasty enough, inhabiting a bland middle ground that’s saved largely by its cast. With its intended appeal to wide audiences, the acrimony between Clooney’s David and Roberts’ Georgia never gets too ugly, but it isn’t that humorous either. Pipski and Parker’s script lacks both sharp barbs or witty rapport, so it’s only Clooney and Roberts’ chemistry that keeps their relationship from feeling dull. There’s simultaneously an ease and a frisson to their interactions, befitting both the former couple on screen and the actors who’ve known each other for decades. The movie is at its best in the rare moments when they’re not fighting; when Clooney’s eyes gently crinkle and Roberts’ wide smile takes over the screen, it feels like a gift. They’re a marvel to watch in these more joyous moments, rather than when Clooney’s character glowers at his ex-wife and son-in-law-to-be. His charm still sneaks through, and it should undermine the character as written, but it somehow improves the film.
After Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!, writer-director Parker is making a career of crafting easygoing comedies starring talented people shot in beautiful locales. It’s not a bad gig; everybody is clearly enjoying themselves here, including the audience. This isn’t as much fun as it could be — or even as delightful as the Mamma Mia! sequel was — but it’s not a bad time. Parker, cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland, and editor Peter Lambert put some effort into the visuals: a few mildly interesting split screens, a shot from inside a cup during a game of beer pong, and a woozy spin when Roberts’ Georgia wakes up from a night of drinking. But they generally seem to put in the amount of work you’d expect from someone on vacation in Bali (though, for the record, the film was shot in Queensland, Australia).
Against the script’s best efforts (or lack thereof), Ticket to Paradise floats by with a modicum infectious charm, all due to its cast. This rom-com is a reminder of star power; Clooney and especially a luminous Roberts keep things buoyant, even when the film around them threatens to drag them down. I feel like Clooney’s judgmental dad character here, harping on lost potential, but this cast and premise promised so much more than it delivers.
“Ticket to Paradise” is in theaters Friday.