Even drug-taking hedonists have souls, and sometimes they're given a chance to redeem themselves although the price to be paid may be steeper than they expect.

Return to Paradise, loosely based on the 1990 French film Force Majeure, shows three young men of college age being put to the test. Bad luck throws them into a crisis situation where they are forced to examine their consciences and decide what kind of values they want to live by.

The cops stumbled upon the hashish Lewis had dumped into the trash and arrested him.

Sheriff (Vince Vaughn), Tony (David Conrad), and Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix) act like prototypical ugly Americans on the prowl in Malaysia. Characterizing the country's beautiful coastline as “God's bathtub,” they turn their tourist visit into a continuous party, featuring cheap drugs and loose women. Only Lewis seems to have any semblance of a moral center. He's concerned about endangered species and plans to work with orangutans in the area when the others go home.

During the final week of their stay, the trio take an outing into the lush jungle. Lewis has rented a bicycle they don't need from a local vendor. Sheriff tosses it into the dense vegetation to eliminate the bother. Lewis, who's worried about the financial loss this will inflict on its owner, objects but doesn't stop to retrieve it.

On their last day together, Sheriff gives Lewis a large stash of hashish which the environmentalist quickly throws into his trash bin. The three didn't know each other back in the states but as they say their good-byes, they promise to stay in touch.

Two years pass, and there's been no contact between them. Sheriff is a Manhattan limo driver who lives in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood. To make some extra bucks, he sells the local tabloids juicy gossip about his rich-and-famous clients. He lives his own version of life in the fast lane. By contrast, Tony, a Harvard-educated architect, has achieved some professional and financial success and plans to get married and settle down.

Their apparent tranquillity is interrupted when Lewis's attorney, Beth Eastern (Anne Heche), brings them bad news from Malaysia. The local bicycle vendor took the police to Lewis's dwelling soon after they left. His missing vehicle, of course, was nowhere to be found. But the cops stumbled upon the hashish Lewis had dumped into the trash and arrested him.

The penalty for drug-dealing in Malaysia is death, and Lewis is scheduled to be hanged in eight days. The American embassy has been unable to help so Beth has cut her own deal with the local authorities. If Sheriff and Tony agree to return to Malaysia and plead guilty to complicity in the drug charge, Lewis won't be executed. The catch is that Sheriff and Tony will have to serve three years each in the local jail where the food is unhealthy and the guards are mean.

Director Joseph Ruben (The Good Son) and screenwriters Wesley Strick and Bruce Robinson focus on Sheriff and his battle with his conscience. After all, he's the one who threw away the bicycle and gave Lewis the drugs. But he's never taken any responsibility for anything in his life before, and he does-n't see why he should start now. But in spite of himself, he feels guilty. The filmmakers make us viscerally experience his torment about his decision to walk away from Lewis.

Tony, on the other hand, is inclined to help his friend. But even he fudges. He agrees to return to Malaysia only if Sheriff will go back with him.

Beth is willing to do almost anything to persuade Sheriff to change his mind, and at this point the filmmakers seem to lose confidence in their premise. Rather than dig deeper into their characters' souls, they stoop to a series of clever plot twists which cheapen the story.

Neither Sheriff, Lewis, or Beth seem to have any core values to guide them so their choices are always subject to change. But what's more disturbing is that the filmmakers are as morally confused as their main characters. Unfortunately, when events come to a head in Malaysia, the characters' moments of sacrifice are undercut by the movie's fashionable attitudes of cynicism and irony.

Return to Paradise addresses important themes, and the filmmakers do succeed in making the viewer ask himself: What would he do if he were in Sheriff or Tony's positions? But one is left with a hollow feeling. The viewer is as unsure about the value of doing the right thing at the movie's end as he was in the beginning.

Arts and Culture correspondent John Prizer currently writes from Washington, D.C.

Return to Paradise is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America.