This Mary Agnes Donoghue thing is getting out of hand.
For those who haven't been alerted yet, Ms. Donoghue is a writer who specializes in screenplays that glorify self-dramatizing and/or self-pitying characters. That was certainly true of the 1988 Bette Midler-Barbara Hershey weeper "Beaches," and it is also true of "Deceived" -- although the recent thriller is so implausible that Goldie Hawn's character is almost the least of its problems.
In "Paradise," the Mary Agnes Donoghue formula is very pure because she not only wrote the film, she also directed it. What's more, two of its stars are children, which means that they were particularly dependent on the filmmaker to shape their performances.
Ms. Donoghue's movie is based on "Le Grand Chemin" ("The Grand Highway"), a more engaging -- though far from perfect -- French film from 1987. Like that film, "Paradise" shows what happens when a married couple takes in a city boy for the summer.
When 10-year-old Willard (Elijah Wood) comes to stay at the country home of Ben (Don Johnson) and Lily Reed (Melanie Griffith), the adults are hardly speaking to each other. Lily is consumed by grief and guilt over a family tragedy that occurred 2 1/2 years earlier while Ben is bitter and resentful after months of rejection from his sullen wife.
Nothing is really given away by saying that Willard's presence in the Reed home helps them to face their troubles at last.
Ms. Donoghue's heavy hand is obvious in the tear-jerking script ("I hate Sundays. So dead. Dead and quiet . . . ") and the syrupy musical score. But the movie's major shortcoming turns out to be the way Ms. Donoghue handles the actors. In fact, there is probably less acceptable acting in "Paradise" than there is in any major movie currently in release.
Elijah Wood, the little boy who plays Willard, and Thora Birch, the little girl who plays his 9-year-old friend Billie, act in a contrived, synthetic way that makes them sound like little adults instead of children. They do manage to achieve a few sweetly natural moments, but more often it's as if Ms. Donoghue were giving them specific line readings, which they were required to repeat, inflection for inflection.
Don Johnson, who is certainly no child, is also very stilted. In last year's "The Hot Spot," he showed signs of developing some acting technique, but in "Paradise," he's back to his old TV actor's habits of overstressing everything his character does.
The only member of the cast who contributes anything resembling an actual performance is Melanie Griffith, who mostly just sits around staring into the distance. At least she seems genuinely sad.
Starring Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith.
Directed by Mary Agnes Donoghue.
Released by Buena Vista.