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Without a Paddle (2004)

The call of the wild, the thrill of adventure. The mistake of a lifetime.

Directed by:

Steven Brill

Rating: 5/10

Running Time: 99 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: 12a

Childhood friends Billy, Jerry, Tom and Dan parted company at graduation. Now aged thirty, Dan (Seth Green) is a spineless, neurotic doctor, Jerry (Matthew Lillard) is more committed to surfing than to his business career or his girlfriend, and Tom is a compulsive liar with no sense of direction in life. News of Billy’s death brings the three together in their old treehouse, where they find a map left by Billy leading to the loot of missing bankrobber D.B. Cooper. On an impulsive whim to relive their youth, the three go on a canoe expedition into the hinterlands of Oregon to find the treasure. After encountering a gap-toothed sheriff, a bear with strong maternal instincts, two armed and angry pot farmers, some white water rapids, a pair of tree-dwelling hippie chicks, and Cooper’s old accomplice-turned-hermit Del Knox (Burt Reynolds), the trio emerge from the wilds the richer for their experiences, if not necessarily more grown up.

Despite an unhealthy obsession with “manrape” and the presence of Burt Reynolds in the third act, ‘Without A Paddle’ avoids the backwoods horror of ‘Deliverance’, preferring the fish-out-of-water comedy of ‘City Slickers’ – but like both those films, ‘Without A Paddle’ is concerned with a rite of passage, as each of the three main characters goes in search not only of treasure, but also of what is missing from his life. Their journey, however, takes them not just back to nature, but back to their childhood, and as in ‘The Big Chill’, the death of an old friend at the film’s beginning becomes the catalyst for some sentimental soul-searching – except that here the nostalgia is directed not at the sixties but at the eighties, making ‘Without A Paddle’ a film whose demographic is clearly intended to be in the same age bracket as Dan, Jerry and Tom.

Wherein lies the problem. For years Hollywood has been targeting this sort of dumbed-down infantilism at teens, but it sits less comfortably in a film aimed at would-be adults. Rites-of-passage films normally trace the development of characters into something more mature, but in ‘Without A Paddle’, only Jerry really does any growing up. Tom, on the other hand, is enriched only in the financial sense, but otherwise remains firmly rooted in his state of arrested development, and is last seen passing down his lack of wisdom to the next generation – while the character who receives top billing, Dan, goes back to the childhood he never had and stays there. Dan’s bizarre regression from responsible, if uptight, adult to moronic kid is the film’s main narrative arc, his rebirth into second child dramatized both by an early scene in which he adopts the fœtal position (convincing a bear that he is its new-born cub), and a later one in which he burrows his way through a long dark tunnel to emerge headfirst into the light – and in our last glimpse of him, he has settled down in a treehouse like the one of his youth. No doubt those thirtysomethings who never managed to move on from the eighties will find a lot here to which they can relate – but for the rest of us, this is just an uneven, low-brow caper that is strictly for big kids.

It's Got: The three leads making the most of their underdeveloped rôles; lots of 1980s nostalgia (‘Star Wars’ figures, the theme music from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, a cassette tape [!] of Boy George’s ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?’, etc.); a big bear; hallucinating dogs; human excrement used as missiles; the line “Thank you, hairy lady of my dreams”; and Burt Reynolds providing presence, facial hair and little else.

It Needs: A more even tone – the nostalgia seems aimed at adults, the humour at teens – and neither is enough to carry you through the film.


'City Slickers', 'Deliverance', 'Dreamcatcher', 'The Big Chill', Old School


A backwoods rite-of-passage comedy that prefers dumbing down to growing up.