The tension in ''Paradise Now" arises not from the act of suicide bombing but from the contemplation about whether to commit it. Told from the point of view of potential perpetrators, the movie wants to show how such a fraught task can give spiritual meaning to a shapeless life. Yet it doesn't take its ideas or its audience far enough. The result is a humanist potboiler.
Written by director Hany Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer, ''Paradise Now" introduces us to Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), Palestinians loafing in the West Bank city of Nablus. They work in a junkyard that does auto repairs, and part of their downtime includes relaxing on a hillside that overlooks the city and passing the hookah between them.
Like a lot of young men all over the world, Said and Khaled are looking for a purpose. They find it when they're discreetly conscripted by an unnamed terrorist group in a plot to kill Israeli soldiers in Tel Aviv the following afternoon. This would be an act of retaliation for an earlier attack by the Israelis.
Seeing in the assignment a rite, a duty, and an honor (both men's fathers suffered at the hands of the Israeli Army), Said and Khaled leave their families for a hideaway. They are scrubbed clean. Their bushy hair is shorn, their beards shaven, their cool casual clothes replaced with crisp black suits, ties, and white shirts. They're dispatched with bombs taped to their bodies. On the way to Tel Aviv, the plan goes awry, and the movie uses the remaining hour to carve out plot twists and cook up semi-believable reversals.
''Paradise Now" produces a strange feeling of the inevitable, which is how the filmmakers seem to want it. Before he leaves, Said has a coffee with his widowed mother. She reads the pattern that has formed at the bottom of his empty cup and divines that he has no future. It's an obvious moment. But the observation is as much an act of unconscious political soothsaying as it is two screenwriters' ham-fisted telegraphy.
The film is smart to allow the characters' personalities and their personal anguish to figure into the proceedings. Said is pensive, while Khaled is humorously devout. They are, in essence, a movie duo: the straight man and the goof. Both actors deftly handle the emotional wringer they're put through. Suliman is especially surprising since he turns the fun-loving clown he plays for most of the movie on its head.
He has an amusing scene in which Khaled makes a solemn video recording to be distributed after the bombing. He's holding a script and a Kalashnikov rifle on a stage, but the camera isn't recording. In another take, Said and a couple of the mission's organizers have a snack while they watch Khaled speechify. It's not until later that the full impact of what he's read seizes Khaled.
As humorous as the scene is, it suggests that the filmmakers are winking at us: This is still a movie. ''Paradise Now," in fact, is ensnared by its movieness. The screenplay introduces such contrivances as Suha (Lubna Azabal), a woman who brings her car in for repair and winds up a potential love interest for Said. She's from Morocco by way of France and, while she doesn't know about Said's immediate plans, she doesn't believe violence is really the way to peace. She's the first character we meet, passing through a checkpoint into Nablus, and is the movie's Westernized moral center.
The obligation to entertain us crowds out a serious dramatization of the question the film wants to ask: Why does a man sign up for terrorism? We're given anecdotal explanations, but the filmmakers expect the political history to speak for itself. The film denies us the context necessary to draw us into Said and Khaled's decision.
The pieces in ''Paradise Now" fall into place too easily. In presenting characters who make arguments for and against participating in a bombing, the movie feels curiously equivocal. It's too simply reasoned and too tidily made to shake you up.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.