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In "Paradise," little Elijah Wood keeps getting passed around by his mom. In another part of the world, Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson are still grieving over a dead child. When Wood's mother dispatches the 10-year-old to her friend Griffith for the summer, the inevitable happens. Inevitably.
Maybe you can buy big-names Griffith and Johnson as southern small-town folks. Perhaps you like to take your sentimentality neat. If you do, you'll probably lap up this mutual salvation set in a fictional town called Paradise. It's a teary season full of cute-kid moments and Griffith-Johnson moments. There's also a bucolic passel of frogs, worms and other living treasures.
Wood, initially unaware of the infant tragedy, finds immediate trouble in Paradise. Guilt-ridden Griffith can't be intimate with Johnson anymore. So he hangs around bars and his shrimp boat. They treat Wood amiably but at arm's length. Sassy 9-year-old Thora Birch is friendlier. After Wood sheds his uptight city ways, the new-found friends are soon hurling earthworms at grown-ups, peeping at lovers in sheds and having rustic kiddy fun. It isn't too long either, before Griffith and Johnson start to like the kid.
He makes friends with them separately. He works the nets with Johnson. He cuts green beans with Griffith. When Wood sees a remote-control airplane lying around the house, he begs Johnson to fly it. Johnson says he hasn't flown the plane in a while, but "maybe it's time I did."
After discovering the awful secret, Wood finds himself in a strategic bargaining position. But there are still emotional demons for Griffith to purge. The resolutions in "Paradise" have a TV-Movie-of-the-Week simplicity. Griffith has one effective, emotional moment in the attic. But this is hardly a major effort for her or hubbie. They seem to be taking a vacation during the movie. Wood, who was in "Avalon" and some 20 TV commercials, has a certain vole-like preciousness. But he and Birch stumble through the wordier, adult-written lines. They fare better when Wood is reacting silently, or Birch's natural precociousness breaks through.
Director Mary Agnes Donoghue, who double-faulted with "Beaches" and "Deceived," has it easier this time. At least the movie's been done already. Produced by the team that gave you "Three Men and a Baby," it's another Americanized French film.
There's a subplot involving Birch's zany mother (Sheila McCarthy) and her desperate dealings with men. There's also an episode in which Birch and Wood head to a nearby roller rink to confront the girl's estranged father. These incidents presumably add to the theme of family loss. They also make the end of this particular summer a blessed relief.
Every so often, among the summer blockbuster action-adventure flicks or romantic comedies, a quiet little low-key film slips through without hardly receiving attention. For the audiences who fill the aisles for the latest slasher movie or teen comedy, Paradise would probably hold no interest whatsoever. A thoughtful, deliberately-paced drama, it fell largely under the radar in its opening year despite featuring popular- at least at the time- stars Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith. But some caught Paradise either at the time or, like myself, years later, and discovered a nice little movie about four people, two adults and two kids, who grow emotionally through their relationships with each other.
If youíre looking for an action movie, or a comedy, or a thriller, Paradise is not the movie for you. Almost nothing in the way of action occurs, and the pace on the whole is deliberate, occasionally running a little toward the sluggish. But itís a nicely-constructed little drama built around a familiar theme. Director Mary Agnes Donoghue has a human touch; Johnson and Griffith have a dramatic, effective scene together in which they finally address issues that have gone unsaid for far too long, and a number of the smaller bonding moments between the characters are genuinely touching. The film makes good use of its natural locations; the marshes, the slow-moving river opening into the sea...it all seems to fit the thoughtful, gently flowing tone of the story. At first I thought Paradise moved a little slow, but after a repeat viewing I came to admire the way it takes its time to say what it wants to say. Too many movies these days feel rushed. Paradise lets its story unravel at a gracefully leisurely pace. It hits a few missteps; Donoghue sometimes loses the intimate human feel and gives in to the temptation to go for the melodrama that interrupts the flow of the story like a rock thrown into a pond. The most obvious example is an overly dramatic, contrived climactic scene that feels tacked-on to supply the movie with an exciting ending when it requires no such thing.
Another thing Paradise has going for it are the performances, which capture the right low-key note in keeping with the tone of the story. No one is over-the-top, and no one hogs the camera. The four principal actors craft down-to-earth characters. Don Johnson, best-known for the popular TV series Miami Vice, proves himself with this and other meaty dramatic roles as a capable, sometimes underrated actor. Ben is a cynical, somewhat caustic man, but his indifferent demeanor hides a genial nature hardened by emotional wounds. He doesnít make a very welcoming first impression, but he soon warms to Willard, and both he and Lily seem to come a little more to life in his presence. Melanie Griffith gives an approximately equal performance, effective as a wounded woman who has closed herself off to keep going. To Ben, she is the Ice Queen, but her lifeless countenance is a mask for a person living in quiet pain. At the same time, Griffith keeps Lily from seeming cold, instead coming across as a naturally warm woman who has retreated within herself because itís the only way she can keep going. We see that Ben does love her, but isnít willing to join her in what he sees as her numb, walking-dead existence.
Unlike some less talented child actors, Elijah Wood does not wear out his welcome by trying to be excessively cute (although his large eyes are preternaturally serious face does give him a slightly unconventional appeal). In fact, Wood gives the most low-key and restrained performance in the film, often conveying emotions more with his big expressive eyes than his dialogue. Heís not a typical ten-year-old boy; he seems solemn at first before loosening up, and even then his expression is often serious and observant. But Wood shows the sweet boy who wants and deserves to be loved beneath the introverted demeanor, and gives a quiet, serious performance without resorting to ďcutesyĒ affectations. Also charming- in a more immediately obvious way- is Thora Birch as the tomboy Billie, spunky, feisty, natural, and exceedingly appealing. Birch and Wood were both nominated for the Young Star Awards, and she gives the more energetic, attention-getting performance, more flamboyant than the low-key Wood, but each is solid, and I would be hard-pressed to pick the superior one. When Birch is allowed to be her precocious self and Wood to follow his quiet acting style, both are splendid, but they sometimes seem a little forced when the script slips into one of its more contrived moments. Certain scenes have the feel that perhaps Wood was pushed into acting a little more dramatically. But there is a real rapport between Elijah Wood and Thora Birch; they have a natural, unforced chemistry, and seem to be leveling with their characters rather than trying to ram their cuteness down our throats.
At its core, Paradise is a fine drama, not a great film, but sometimes funny, sometimes touching, and nicely-acted.