By Pete Croatto
Paradise was supposed to be a star vehicle for Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson -- who were then on something like their eighth marriage and running on star power fumes. This was not exactly Burton and Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The couple is not the reason to watch this down home drama; it's the secondary plot that resonates. When you're a kid, there are moments when the curtain gets pulled away from the world you know and reality starts making some unpleasant appearances. That realization is tenderly presented in the performances from a prepubescent Elijah Wood and Thora Birch (Ghost World).
The kids, both outsiders, become friends and allies over a memorable summer. For Wilbur (Wood), being out of place is a way of life. At his upscale private school, his scholarship status separates him from his more affluent classmates. Things are no better in the rough neighborhood he calls home, where his quiet demeanor and schoolboy uniform make him a perfect target for bullies.
Further complicating matters is that his father hasn't been home in months. Hoping to sort this mess out, Wilbur's pregnant mother ships him off to a sleepy fishing town to stay with her childhood friend Lily (Griffith). The house is something out of a commercial for laundry detergent, but the sullen couple doesn't belong there. Since their young son died two years ago, Lily has lived in a cocoon of grief, while her husband Ben (Johnson) has grown increasingly irritated with her moping.
Wilbur looks to be an afterthought, but soon Lily and Ben warm to him and appear to inch toward reconciliation. Only Lily is in a blue period whose end doesn't look near. It's in this area where the movie struggles because director/writer Mary Agnes Donoghue constantly hammers us over the head with reminders of Lily and Ben's impasse -- the clipped conversations, the sullen encounters, the revisiting of the past. It all gets repetitive very quickly, and a miscast Griffith doesn't improve things. There's a small array of roles that Griffith is meant for, and long-suffering, earthy housewives aren't among them. That's Laura Linney territory. Johnson, however, gives a fine performance, convincingly transitioning from stoic to softie.
Wood and Birch's subplot of discovery and friendship keeps you engaged. Though Wood is excellent, Birch gives Paradise the human touch that Johnson and Griffith's plot lacks. You want to see her learn the tough lessons, but you pray she comes out as precocious and spirited as she did before. For an hour and 40 minutes, Thora Birch becomes your child and the reason to watch the movie.
Facts and Figures
In Theaters: Friday 4th October 1991
Box Office Worldwide: $5.6M
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 36%
Fresh: 4 Rotten: 7
Cast & Crew
Starring: Willie Aames as David, Phoebe Cates as Sarah, Tuvia Tavi as The Jackal, Richard Curnock as Geoffrey, Neil Vipond as Reverend, Aviva Marks as Rachel, Shoshana Duer as Bedouin Woman, Jerry Rosen as Jackal's Bodyguard, Riki Halfon as Belly Dancer, Joseph Shiloach as Ahmed