Without a Paddle, by Cameron J. Czaja

Do you remember a time where the only way to watch movies on tv without commercials, and completely unedited, was through premium channels such as HBO and Showtime? That seems like a bygone era in retrospect due to streaming now being prevalent, though that pretty much summed up the late 1990s and most of the 2000s for me. One thing that I noticed, aside from no commercials and unedited content, was that, for some reason, they would play the same movie at least a couple of times a day for a month or so. One of these that I recall playing on repeat at one time was the 2004 comedy Without a Paddle

Even though Without a Paddle came out 2004, I remember first watching it on Showtime in March of 2006. Because my viewing options were limited then, I found myself watching it countless times and eventually fell in love with it. I even bought it on DVD at one point despite having seen it way too many times. I was sixteen when I first watched the film, which is half my current age at the moment, and let’s just say my taste in film has changed tremendously throughout the years. Is Without a Paddlethe film that I enjoyed, or is it another comedic dud much like a majority of comedy from the early 2000s? As usual let’s find out.

In Without a Paddle, we follow Dan (Seth Green), Jerry (Matthew Lillard), and Tom (Dax Shepard), who are childhood friends who reunite after a death of their fourth friend Billy (Antony Starr). After the funeral service, they recount their childhood memories in their old treehouse, and from there they rediscover their childhood obsession in finding D.B. Cooper’s treasure. While D.B. Cooper was someone that the four friends were fascinated by, it was Billy who was the most ambitious to adventure out and D.B. Cooper stash of loot. The three friends uncover Billy’s organized plan to find the money, but he never made the journey because he wanted to do it with the rest of his friends. To honor Billy’s passing, Dan, Jerry, and Tom decide to take the trip Billy never did. It seems simple as it involves canoeing down a river and hiking through the Pacific Northwest, but after an encounter with a grizzly bear and two hillbilly pot farmers (who end up chasing them throughout the film), the three friends really get a taste of what it’s like to be up the creek without a paddle (get it?).

For those who haven’t seen Without a Paddle, it’s a comedy that has crude humor involving feces, a scene where the three leads get high at a pot farm, and female characters that add little to the plot other than sex appeal. So, basically, a typical comedy from the early 2000s. Despite that, I would be lying if I said I no longer enjoyed this film, in a guilty pleasure sort of way. 

One of the reasons why Without a Paddle still appeals to me to this day is the lead characters Dan, Jerry, and Tom. Their friendship in the film was something I was drawn to because it felt believable to where I want to think that they were all already good friends in real life. All three of them (at least to my knowledge) have never acted with each other before this film, and yet the bond they have feels like it has existed long before this movie was made. They may have done a bonding exercise before filming began, but either way, it feels authentic. I believe the reason why I enjoyed the chemistry between the actors is because we spend a huge chunk of the film with Dan, Jerry, and Tom, and having a believable friendship not only enhances the film, but makes their time together still enjoyable, even if the humor outside the leads doesn’t appeal to you. 

Another aspect that I enjoyed deeply in Without a Paddle is the surprising amount of character development that’s presented with the three leads. During the opening credits, we are showcased with a montage of Dan, Jerry, Tom, and Billy as young boys growing up. In this short amount of time, we get to see not only the great friendship that these boys had, but the type of people they were and what they grow up to be. Jerry ends up working in an office setting and in a committed relationship, but feels trapped in the former and not progressive in the latter. Dan is a successful doctor, but is also a hypochondriac, and has trouble standing up for himself during certain situations. As for Tom, let’s just say he’s made some mistakes in life due to his bad habit of constantly lying. Throughout the film, the friends start to learn more about themselves through conversations which will help them grow closer not only in character, but in camaraderie. Not to give any spoilers, but there’s even a scene where Jerry attempts an act where he would sacrifice himself in order to save his friends life. I didn’t really think about the impact of that scene when I was younger, but thinking about it now through a more Catholic perspective, it’s something I enjoyed mainly because I now have a better understanding when it comes to sacrificing one’s own life to save others. This is a theme that has been brought up on The Legionnaire before, and will most likely be brought up in reviews to come.

Despite the themes I enjoyed in Without a Paddle, I am sometimes hesitant to recommend this film to certain audiences due to the crass humor attached to it. When I looked up reviews for this film, I saw that it had a 14% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 29 Metascore. These low marks surprised me at first, though in retrospect comedies are an easy target for critics to tear up, especially one from an era where a majority of them from that genre are mediocre at best. That said, I still enjoyed this film quite a bit despite the negative reviews it received. If anything, it proves that even lowbrow comedies can contribute to having great themes such as friendship and rediscovering yourself. This is something I wish more films of this type today would focus on. 


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