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‘Paradise’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 04, 1991

"Paradise," starring Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, is a work of lush symphonic sentiment -- every phony-baloney minute of it.

The picture, which was adapted from the French hit "Le Grand Chemin" by its director, Mary Agnes Donoghue, chronicles the coming of age of a frail 10-year-old boy named Willard (Elijah Wood), who is sent by his mother to stay with her best friend, Lily (Griffith), in a small village on the Southern coast while she straightens out her collapsing marriage. The town is named Paradise, but there's something rotten in Eden. Lily and her husband, Ben (Johnson), live together, but there's an emotional wall between them. A charged hush surrounds them.

We find out about that later.

Donoghue, who also wrote the script for "Beaches," takes time weaving her narrative threads. While we wait for the other dramatic shoe to drop on the Lily-and-Ben front, Willard takes up with a fearless 9-year-old tomboy named Billie (Thora Birch) who drags him up into the treetops, takes him swimming and introduces him to the pleasures (some of them naughty) of country life. From the beginning, it's established that Willard is a brain but something of a fraidy-cat. Billie helps him get over some of his fears, and, quickly, they become best friends. Very cute best friends.

Still, there's this hush between Lily and Ben, and Willard is far too sensitive not to notice it. One day, after he and Billie have tossed worms on the heads of some old folks at a funeral, he spies Lily placing flowers on a grave in the cemetery. After she leaves, he wanders over to the spot and looks at the gravestone. What does he see? Big news. Alert all the affiliates that we're going to run over our allotted time.

Ben and Lily, it seems, had a boy of their own, Jimmy, who choked on a piece of candy and died at the age of 3. That was more than two years ago, and ever since then, Lily has been dead inside. "She wasn't always like she is now," Ben tells Willard as he teaches him how to cast a spinning rod. She used to be fearless, Ben says. When they first met, he says, she walked right up to him on the street and said, "You look like trouble. You wanna take me out?" No use talking about that now, though, he says. That Lily is long gone; she died with Jimmy.

From the instant Willard unearths Lily and Ben's horrible secret, you know exactly where the picture has to go. Maybe even before that. Maybe from the time Ben takes Willard out on his shrimp boat, or gives him the model airplane he made for Jimmy. Through Willard, Ben and Lily will rediscover themselves; he's the healer. But first he has to confront his fears and heal himself. And there's no doubt that, somehow, he will. And that nothing will stand in the way of everything working out all right for him, for his mom, for Ben and Lily.

"Paradise" isn't a shoddy piece of filmmaking; Donoghue sculpts every moment, every emotional nuance, and you have to admire the care and skillful craftsmanship that she expends on her material. Still, she can't disguise the fact that she's lavishing all this nurturing affection on hackneyed tripe. There's not a moment in "Paradise" that doesn't seem borrowed from some other film, not a development that isn't telegraphed long before it occurs. It's a boilerplate tearjerker.

The actors have their moments, but they, too, can't transcend the cliches. It's a tribute to both Griffith and Johnson that they prompt us to invest as much as we do in Ben and Lily's relationship. This is the most effective part of the film; somehow they make us feel that it's important that they get back together. Griffith has a real genius for subtle transparency; her acting here is finely detailed and delicate.

Johnson, too, fits nicely into his role. Ben's a regular guy; there's nothing flashy about him, and it's a pleasure to see Johnson work inside a character with a more realistic range of emotions. And he's up to it. Ben's at a dead end; he wants to live, but he's waiting for Lily, and Lily, it seems, isn't going to make it. And Johnson gives depth to both his love for Lily and the self-protective distance he has to keep from her in order to survive.

As Willard, Wood is watchful and refreshingly restrained. And, as Billie, little Thora Birch is a darling. Still, what the actors bring to their roles cuts against the tide of the script. Donoghue doesn't open up all the emotional hydrants and drown us in schmaltz; she's tastefully manipulative, but manipulative nonetheless. It's ersatz stuff, and, yet, it may get to you. But taste your own tears and see if they don't taste like glycerin.

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