Four boys growing up in the 1980s develop a friendship that stands through time. As they graduate from high school and venture down their individual paths, each has hopes of making it big. Then, after out-achieving the others, Billy, the group's leader, dies suddenly. The remaining three reunite at his funeral. As they reminisce about old times, they discover that Billy has hidden a map to a treasure in the mountains. They decide to pay homage to Billy by following it deep into the woodlands of Oregon. Their expedition doesn't go as smoothly as they expect it to, of course. A raging river, a hungry bear, tree-hugging "nature girls" and two hillbilly marijuana growers do quite a bit to slow them down!
While there's not much to write home about, friendship is regarded as a priceless treasure in life. Tom, Jerry and Dan value it, ultimately, above all else, and their hunt for booty is based not on greed but on a promise they made to Billy. Backing up their sentiment with actions, the guys argue, but quickly apologize and make up. Several scenes show them encouraging one another through hardships. Self-sacrifice is depicted when Jerry and Dan give up the chance for profit to repay Tom's debts. (The money's stolen, though; see "Other Negative Elements" for the details.) Elsewhere, Jerry is shown finally accepting the responsibilities of growing up.
Two girls, who live in a tree, talk about dancing naked in a thunderstorm, insinuating it is a spiritual experience for them (but also describing it as "orgasmic"). Later, one of the girls preaches to Dan, "Even if the tree of your body dies, your soul will live on," while the other chimes in with, "Everything happens for a reason." She later calls Dan a "beautiful spirit."
An early scene sets the movie's tone by showing Tom in bed with a lingerie-clad woman. When her girlfriend walks in on them, Tom stands up and says, "I'm thinking of a Tom sandwich!" The greeting on Jerry's answering machine refers to having sex with his live-in girlfriend. A former lover of the guys' dead friend climbs on the casket in a sexual manner and makes a suggestive comment. Dan talks about his inability to "get laid." When the friends return to their childhood clubhouse after the funeral, the camera lingers on a picture of a half-naked pinup girl on the wall.
That's just the beginning! The tree-huggers are shown bathing in bikini tops. The boys comment on seeing the girls' "downstairs." Then the guys disrobe (with Tom making a sexual joke) and spend the next 10 minutes in their underwear, even while running around the forest. Genitalia is habitually mentioned in jokes about such things as anatomy size and castration. Closing shots show Dan in bed with one of the nature girls, and Tom telling stories to a Cub Scout group about women's private parts. Most of Without a Paddle's characters—from mechanics to mountain men to neo-hippie girls—are cast with a homoerotic shadow. Underscored with Culture Club's hit song "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" jokes contemplate everything from gay love to gay rape. Comments are made about Dan's sexual preference. And to top it all off, the three guys huddle together in their underwear to avoid freezing in the rain. (The scene turns into a pseudo-sex romp complete with intentionally provocative visual innuendo and a sexually charged conversation.)
The ganja growers, Dennis and Elwood, are loaded with weapons, from shotguns to handguns to cleavers. Their pursuit of the trio through the mountains involves regularly firing at the guys. A gunfight between the hicks and another mountain man ends in a four-wheeler being blown up. Jerry tosses a grenade at his pursuers. Dennis puts Elwood in a stranglehold and later hits him. Violent punches fly and wood is used as a weapon when Tom and Jerry fight Dennis and Elwood. Finally, a tree lands on three men, though the image is shot with more comedy than gore.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The first half of the movie is filled with beer, wine and hard liquor. A bottle of wine is gulped down in a graduation-day flashback. The guys get hammered after Billy's funeral. Tom and Jerry drink while traveling in the car to Oregon. Jerry loads cases of beer into the canoe before they begin their adventure, asking, "What's a camping trip without beer?" Later, as Dan attempts to start a fire, Jerry gulps down alcohol, then sprays it in Dan's direction, sparking a fireball. The second half adds pot to the mix. Dennis and Elwood are in the business of growing marijuana. When Tom, Jerry and Dan attempt to hide from the men, they stumble upon a barn full of the drug. Tom rips open a case and begins smelling it. And when the trio escapes from the mountain men's gunshots, they run through a field of the weed that's been set on fire. (The entire scene is dedicated to one long—and not that funny—pot joke in which everyone's high.) Even the attack dogs get high and stop to lie on their backs and gaze at the moon.
Worse than the frequency of the movie's drug and alcohol references is the way these things are presented. Not once is getting wasted or high seen in a negative light. Instead, it's all good fun—no matter if your friend just died, your face is on fire or you're too stoned to care if you live or die.
Other Negative Elements
The guys know the money they find was stolen. Yet none of them offers to return it to the authorities. Tom is a compulsive liar and gets his friends in continual trouble because of it. He's also gambled his life away. And he attempts to steal a bale of marijuana. That doesn't bother him much, though, because one of the film's main themes is living in the moment. Billy is seen as a hero for his ability to live every day to its fullest, and the guys continue to pay homage to that ideal throughout their journey. While appreciating today's blessings is a wonderful thing, Without a Paddle takes the liberty of replacing "living in the now" with "living it up." As a result, viewers are left to assume this concept means drinking beer, getting high, being sexually promiscuous and facing near-death experiences with foolish laughter.
It's based on a simple premise, but Without a Paddle could've been a light-hearted comedy about mountain trip mishaps. Instead, it becomes a mishap. And a dangerous one at that. At first blush the story seems innocuous, even positive: three best friends paying homage to their lost leader by embarking on the treasure hunt they dreamed about as kids. Instead, it gets "lost in the woods" starting with the very first scene, bludgeoning families with profanities and vulgarities, and a barrage of sexual—and homosexual—references. At one point in the friends’ miserable adventure, Dan says, "Things are as bad as they could possibly get." And yet, onscreen, they continued to get worse.