In an era when virtually every new film is easily rewatchable with the help of streaming service, I sometimes wonder whether every new film is actually rewatched, over and over again, by somebody. Back in what Daniel Herbert describes as the material interlude of cinema, the period when videos and DVDs suddenly turned film into a collectible physical object, rewatchability felt indistinguishable from the act of collection itself. To buy a film, as object, was to rewatch it many times, while movies were typically confident in the awareness that they would be revisited in this obsessive and loving way. No genre quite leaned into that endlessly revisitable quality like the 90s romcom, which is perhaps why it has become one of the hardest cinematic events to replicate in a streaming era. Ticket to Paradise doesn’t exactly attempt to redress this so much as to explain why it has occurred, and, in lieu of kickstarting the entire romcom genre, to offer something more modest – a single, eminently rewatchable film. The title alludes to that very experience – buying a ticket to a romantic paradisial escape.
Like most 90s romcoms, there’s a combative element to the relationship here that draws on the great screwball comedies of the 30s. Julia Roberts and George Clooney, two of the lead hearthrobs of the 90s, play Georgia and David Cotton, an estranged couple who are forced to work together when their daughter, Lily, played by Kaitlyn Dever, becomes engaged to a Gede, a young Balinese man, played by Maxime Bouttier, within days of meeting him during a Pacific vacation at the end of college. Georgia and David can barely stand being in the same room as each other, so this is a considerable challenge, and forces them to revisit their own relationship, which – no surprises – is the central romance of the film, and the core of its rewatchability. While they have many interactions with other characters – Georgia is in a new relationship – they mainly bounce off each other, making the film an unofficial two-hander.
The history of Georgia and David’s relationship corresponds exactly to the evolution of the 90s romcom. In 2022, it’s been a quarter century since David proposed to Georgia, in what they now perceive as the peak of their romance. They lasted five years before it went downhill, as “the same thing happened as in every relationship: it started out unreal, then it got real.” In other words, the long history of this relationship picks up where 90s romcoms typically ended, in the spectacle of engagement and the honeymoon period of a marriage, while George and David’s five years together unfolded over the peak of the romcom era. Yet the great joke of Ticket to Paradise is that even when playing a estranged divorced couple, Roberts and Clooney have more on screen charisma that the younger couple. Even their breakup story feels like a romance, or preserves their original romance, so inviolable is their feel-good presence, meaning much of the pleasure of the film comes from the seismic shock of seeing these two actors in the same space again, enjoying each others’ cinematic company. We learn that Georgia has spent the last twenty years trying to avoid being in the same timezone as David, so when they come together there’s a genuinely eventful comic tension.
The stage is set for a comedy of remarriage, but one aligned more with genre than with a specific relationship. While it’s not clear whether Georgia and David will get together, or even if they do end up getting together in the film’s tremulously open conclusion, Ticket to Paradise is performing a modest rehabilitation of the romcom genre as a whole here. As Stanley Cavell argued in Pursuits of Happiness, screwball comedies usually involved a pastoral interlude, a foray into what Northrop Frye called “the green world” to restore the central relationship. In most screwball comedies, that green world was the wilds of New England, whereas here it’s Bali, where virtually all of the film unfolds. To that end, Ol Parker offers a gentle counterpoint to the white guilt of recent travel texts such as The White Lotus, The Resort, Nine Perfect Strangers and Triangle of Sadness, with a more modest and old-fashioned Pacific exotica. From the light-hearted jokes about cultural norms, to Gede’s rumination on seaweed farming as a partnership with the goddess of the ocean, this could easily be part of the Balinese chapter in Eat Pray Love, but without the same pretensions to profundity: “I am so out of balance.” “You can find it here.” It’s a serene and idyllic version of Bali, light years away from all the ways that western tourists have imprinted themselves upon Ubud, Kuta and Seminyak.
Within this gentle and modest space, Parker carves out an aesthetic that is both similar and dissimilar to the feel-good palettes of the 90s, displacing and centring Clooney and Roberts at the same time. On the one hand, the bright tones and warm light are clearly continuous with the lovingly lush palettes of the classic romcom. Yet there’s a different porosity to the spaces here, whether it’s the open-plan Balinese villas, the seaweed farms that float on the surface of the ocean, or the permeability between the different branches and generations of Gede’s extended family, so different in scale and spirit to David, Georgia and Lily’s fractured kingdom of three. Parker introduces this porosity in the enormous drone shot, so alien to the aerial perspectives of 90s cinema, that marks Lily’s first morning with Gede’s family. As the camera pulls back from her bedroom, to her balcony, to the beach, to the seaweed farms, and finally to the ocean, it’s clear that there are no conventional thresholds or interiors here.
This fluid collapse of space is echoed a sequence of other drone shots throughout the film, in a pointed contrast to the immaculately contained spaces of the classic romcom, although that just makes it all the more ingenious when Parker manages to rehabilitate the latter within this new visual scheme. We see it in his reinvention of one of the most pervasive of 90s feel-good tropes – the moment when someone comes down to the kitchen for a midnight snack, and finds someone else doing the same. A deep conversation nearly always ensues, as it does in Parker’s remediated version, which sees Georgia and David meeting unexpectedly in the hotel bar after hours. Yet while these isolated tropes percolate throughout the film, Parker gradually coalesces them into arguably the most resonant 90s mise-en-scene: the lake house. Stretching roughly from its idyllic incarnation in On Golden Pond, where it eulogises the classical era of Hollywood by way of Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn, to the horrors of What Lies Beneath, which presage a porous digital future, the lake house corresponds to a long 90s in its permutations of an older bourgeois cosiness in the face of a liquid-virtual future.
In Ticket to Paradise, this fantasmatic lake house quickly becomes a symbol for both the peak and the decline of Georgia and David’s relationship. We learn that David had built a lake house during the later part of their romance, and believed that it would be enough to restore their love: “If I could only get her in that house, it would fix everything.” Instead, the lake house burned down, and the marriage was over three weeks later. Without a house to anchor the lake, the couple were beset with an agoraphobic precarity, an inability to map the digital future that has crystallised into the film’s drone shots, which nearly always displace or elide them. This produces one of the most unusual features of Ticket to Paradise – moments when characters are suspended in the midst of ethers that almost gravitate the action into horror, only for romance to save the day in a self-consciously fantastic way. In the very first scene in Bali, Lily surfaces from a scuba dive to discover that the boat has left her behind. Parker holds this beat just long enough to recall the agoraphobic terrors of Open Water, one of the defining films in capturing the dissolution of this feel-good bourgeois containment in the early 2000s, only for Gede to arrive and save the day. A mere week later, they’re engaged to be married.
That same bald encounter between spatial porosity and romantic fantasy continues throughout the film. En route to Bali, Georgia and David’s plane runs into turbulence. There’s a brief reprise when the cabin crew reassure the passengers that it’s normal, and then a further escalation when even the stewards grow alarmed as thunder roars, lighting strikes and the plane rattles precariously from side to side. No sooner has this threat peaked, however, than we cut seamlessly to the Balinese luggage carousel, where Georgia is greeted and embraced by her love – the plane’s captain, Paul. As if this weren’t romantic fantasy enough, Paul is played by Lucas Bravo, the Instagram heartthrob from Emily in Paris. Later on, Paul suffers from the same susceptibility to agoraphobic danger when he’s bitten by a snake in an island temple surrounded by massive stretches of water, but this too is couched in romance – he’s just proposed to Georgia. The same fear of open space continues into moments that aren’t explicitly associated with romance, as when the family go swimming with dolphins, and David has the misfortune to get bit by the one rogue cetacean in the pod.
Such spectacles of near-catastrophe function as an incentive to Georgia and David to adapt themselves to this porous spatial scheme. They start by taking a shot at seaweed farming, and in that strange zone that defies solid or liquid coordinates, laugh together for the first time. However, the main catalyst, and the peak of this movie-long pastoral interlude, comes when they’re stranded overnight on a remote island with Lily and Gede. On the one hand, this is the most precarious and agoraphobic space in the film, forcing the foursome to hunt for food and build a fire. Yet it simultaneously prompts David to admit that he still owns the lake house, and visits it from time to time. Caught between the reality of their dronescaped digital present, and the spectre of an older feel-good insularity, the couple finally kiss, pull apart just as quickly, and return to an even more intensified screwball rapport – talking at maniacal cross-purposes, before shaking hands in the most erotically charged encounter of the movie.
Ticket to Paradise thus reads the screwball comedy of remarriage as an exercise in restoring romantic space above all. The cosiest and most sequestered space in the film – the lake house – returns from the widest and most porous space – the island – and while it may only return as fantasy, it nevertheless reconciles Georgia and David to a more fluid world, while allowing them to reimagine that world a little more in their own image too. Both tendencies unfold over the third act, which starts with a stylised shot of David floating, fully clothed, on the surface of his swimming pool, gazing down dreamily at the camera, but from there moves to tighter shots, a sharper sense of the supporting characters, and a convergence of all the plot points around the final wedding ceremony. At the very moment that Georgia and David lean into the porosity of the film, it condenses to accommodate them, encouraging actors and audiences of their generation to make the same leap of faith, even if it seems scary at first.
The next to last note of the film, then, is grace in the face of age, especially given the way that Lily demands that her parents give her and Gede their blessing in the middle of the ceremony. There are a lot of red flags to this relationship, even for the most dysfunctional of parents – Lily has only been in Bali a week, barely knows Gede, and has an entire life waiting for her back home. For all that Lily lambasts the datedness of her parents, her own romance is also basic in the most ludicrous way – white girl goes to Bali, falls in love with the first guy she meets, and suddenly claims to know everything about Balinese ritual and protocol. It’s a vision of Gen Xers demanding the status of traditional marriage, and the legacy of the romcom, while rejecting the problematic-combative undercurrents of the feel-good 90s – a generation who often think they’ve reinvented marriage by dint of sheer eccentricity or exoticism, even as they claim to have deproblematised themselves out the classic romcom era that Roberts and Clooney represent. The final stage, for Georgia and David, is thus to accept this caricature of their romance, cede the misreading of what they represented, for the sake of the future.
That gives the final scene of Ticket to Paradise a beautifully plangent tone, as Georgia and David become their own cinema audience, fusing actors and moviegoers into a generational elegy as they sit on the back of the shuttle boat, and watch their daughter and son-in-law, the next wave of romantic leads, recede into the distance. Yet the film isn’t content to settle for mere elegy either. Instead, Parker shifts to a tremulous beat in which Georgia and David look at each other, seem on the verge of kissing, and then hold hands, as if accelerating and exhausting the tropes of both romance and marriage in a single second. It’s like seeing Roberts and Clooney’s careers condensed into the blink of an eye, propelling them to leap off the boat, as they embrace the precarious and porous spaces of a generation determined to caricature them, but with a firm sense of the place they came from as well. And the film ends there, suspended between land and sky, its final image frozen into a provisional lake house, neither tethered by the past or daunted by the future – a leap of pure desire, a desire that defies logic, that can’t be deproblematised, from the last generation fully reared on cinema.