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‘Paradise’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 04, 1991

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 newfound 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."

Heeeaalin'. Wo-wo-wo, heaaaalin'.

After discovering the awful secret, Wood finds himself in a strategic bargaining position. But there are still emotional demons forGriffith 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. The original, Jean Loup Hubert's "Le Grand Chemin," was hardly fabulous. But it sits better in the memory than this respinning.

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.

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