At the beginning of Paradise, Willard Young (Elijah Wood), a quiet, dark-haired 10-year-old with an avid shine in his eye, is sent by his mother to spend a couple of weeks with Lily and Ben Reed (Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson). The Reeds live in a cozy white farm house in a pastoral country town called Paradise. As raccoons and deer gather, like happy animals in a Disney cartoon, sunlight pours through the backyard branches, and the birds sing their chirpy symphony. After a summer of terminators, city slickers, and naked guns, moviegoers are probably ready for a country getaway themselves, and Paradise, if nothing else, has the calm, inviting atmosphere of an afternoon spent fishing.
Willard starts hanging out with a spunky little girl named Billie (Thora Birch), who thinks nothing of walking around the guardrail atop a 50-foot-tall lookout tower. She teases and challenges him with her fearlessness, and the two become best friends. Back at the house, though, Willard can sense something is wrong. The Reeds don't quite look at each other when they speak. They both seem sad, stranded caught in their private dreams. The reason is soon revealed: Two and a half years ago, they lost their 3-year-old son in an accident, and their relationship has never recovered from the tragedy. Paradise is about how Willard's presence catalyzes the healing process, rekindling the Reeds' stalled marriage.
It's perfectly possible to make an honest sentimental movie, one that earns its tears instead of jerking them (examples include It's a Wonderful Life, Sounder, and Men Don't Leave). It's also possible to make a dishonest sentimental movie that works anyway, like Love Story or the 1937 Stella Dallas. So when I say that Paradise, despite some likable performers, left me cold, it's not because I'm the sort of person who doesn't cry at movies. (Far from it: I cry at AT&T commercials.) It's because this pleasant, wan, and finally mechanical film depends on its sketchy, tearjerker situations and not its dramatic texture to move you. You never quite feel your buttons are being pushed, yet the film barely rises above the level of a programmatic TV movie.
Paradise has such a leisurely, naturalistic rhythm that you look forward to seeing Willard and the Reeds bond, slowly and believably, over the course of their several weeks together. The movie, though, is clunkier than that. Writer-director Mary Agnes Donoghue, who scripted the 1988 hit Beaches (this is her first time behind the camera), softens and telegraphs the action, as if she didn't trust the audience. In a couple of early scenes, Ben Reed treats Willard gruffly, making it clear he doesn't want him around. Then he takes the kid fishing; a few scenes later, the gruffness is gone, and they're fast friends. Lily, we're told, has felt numb ever since her son died. She can't even bring herself to make love to Ben. Yet nothing in Melanie Griffith's cuddly, melting softness reflects Lily's ''frozen'' state. The way that Griffith has been directed, Lily never seems less than supremely nurturing. And so the movie unlike, say, The Doctor pulls back from revealing the dark side of an ordinary person's anguish.
Whenever a scene threatens to catch dramatic fire, it's smothered in gobs of yearning, wonder-struck, Spielbergian soundtrack music the sort of aural syrup that keeps telling you what to feel. The music is of a piece with the film: Instead of delving into the Reeds' relationship, Donoghue piles on weeper subplots. Willard's parents have separated, but he hasn't even been told; he just thinks his dad is away at sea. Then he's hit with the traumatic truth. Cute little Billie has never even met her father. Then she tries to contact him, with dismaying results. Billie's mother, Sally (Sheila McCarthy), is a goony-faced pixie who can't stop chattering on about what a hot number she is. She's essentially on hand for comic relief, and every time she shows up the movie ridicules her for her absurd vanity. But then it turns out that her ''nice'' boyfriend, whom she's planning to marry, is a loser with an attitude. So she, too, joins the circle of pain.
As a screenwriter, Donoghue serves up unrefined chunks of problem drama. As a director, though, she does nice work with the children Elijah Wood (from Avalon), who never seems more than a refreshingly normal kid, and Thora Birch, who's an irresistible scamp. When these two are just wandering around, making up games, the movie evokes the blissful nonchalance of a childhood friendship. And Griffith and Johnson, whose tumultuous offscreen relationship rivaled Liz and Dick's for a few years there, have the right chemistry to play this troubled couple. You register their sensitivity to one another. If only they'd been given better dialogue. The trouble with a movie like Paradise is that it's already made up its mind about the ways it wants to move you. By the end, even your tears feel circumscribed. C