Directed by Mary Agnes Donoghue
Touchstone Pictures Jean Francois Lepetit
Paradise begins at a private school where Willard (Elijah Wood) meets Clay and they talk about where they’re going for the summer. Clay is going to his summer home in Colorado. Willard lies and says he’s going to Africa. We then follow Willard home and see a very conventional scene establishing him as unpopular and lonely when he passes a pick up baseball game and is harassed by bullies. This scene is so common in American cinema (i.e. sports as a proving ground of childhood acceptance) that it fails to achieve its goal: creating sympathy for the protagonist.
We are introduced to Willard’s mother and instantly pass judgment on her. Willard comes home and she is on the phone. She closes the door in his face because she is talking about a private matter. Later, we find Willard is being sent off to the country to stay with her friends as she gives birth to a new baby and can’t take care of him. As we will find later, the American version of the film will become overly-obsessed with justifying why a mother would send her only child to stay with her friends for a few weeks. Ironically, this justification is needed because this version of the film takes place in the present where childbirth is less difficult, thus making it more implausible than in Le Grand chemin.
Willard pleads with his mother that his friend’s mother gave birth and he didn’t have to leave but to no avail. The absolute lack of subtlety, which is another problem many American films face because commercial appeal is so crucial, creates some of the worst lines in this film. When the bus arrives at their destination Willard’s mother says ‘We’re here?’ Willard says ‘Where?’ and the response is ‘Paradise.’ This is the reason so many people joke ‘That’s where they got the title from!’ with mock-enthusiasm. Le Grand chemin is not as heavy handed in revealing its title as it’s the bus driver who yells out the stop their making.
Upon leaving the bus Elijah Wood uses quite a good facial expression to show his disappointment with his surroundings. Wood was one of the most talented child actors to ever grace the silver screen, he and Melanie Griffith’s talents were utterly wasted in this poorly directed adaptation, whether or not Wood’s adult career will be as spectacular is yet to be seen. He will be in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and I found the first film overrated, which means in my opinion, his last great film was Black and White, an ensemble piece in 1999. [Clearly all of this is accurate as of this writing. Since the completion of the trilogy he has done little to live up the promise he showed as a youth, Maniac may change that.]
Willard then meets Ben, played by Don Johnson, who pretty much only knows two emotions (straight and angry) and can’t act in either of them. And we get the same game of deception as we did in the French version. Remaking a film is truly a catch-22. When scenes were simply translated from the French I wanted new material and where there were new wrinkles added I thought they were covering the wrong ground. A perfect example is when we are introduced to Sally Pike (Sheila McCarthy) who is a waitress in a local dinner who is talking to Lily (Melanie Griffith) about how she has decided to get married. Sally’s marriage proposition will be one of two flimsy, underdeveloped and unnecessary subplots that Donoghue thrusts upon this once simple and beautiful film.
At the Reed home, we see Lily chop the head off a dead chicken. This scene is a microcosm of the difficulty in remaking a film that was originally the product of another culture. In Le Grand chemin Marcelle (Anémone) skins a rabbit which shocks the young Louis. Here it’s a chicken getting its head chopped off, while animal rights activists might not allow for an animal to be skinned French audiences wouldn’t be as queasy as to disallow even a simulation of the event. The context in which the action occurs justifies it whether you agree with it or not. They live in the country, thus, don’t buy clean pre-prepared chicken. However, just that little change when having the original niggling at the back of your head makes it an annoying occurrence. It makes you realize this movie is French. It was told from a French perspective yet something about that experience made it universal, by transplanting and Americanizing it we are ruining what made it wonderful. While certain cinematic experiences are ‘indigenous,’ meaning they have a greater significance to the culture that created it (i.e. Central do Brasil [Central Station]) there is still something about the film that made it renowned worldwide. The formulizing and studiofication of Le Grand chemin is sadly not the worst English translation but the fact that it was made at all is bad enough. Why couldn’t the general public just go to see the original? It makes Americans seem not only elitist but ignorant that we can’t go en masse to hear a new language and read while at the theatre. Read in the movies? God forbid!
The lack of subtlety strikes again when Willard meets Billie Pike (Thora Birch). Her first line is ‘Have you ever seen a dead body?’ This is a blunt insertion of the theme of death that runs throughout this and the original, again Jean-Loup Hubert handled the subject with much more delicacy than did Donoghue. We also then get the introduction of love and sex as themes in an equally amateur way when Billie asks if Willard would like to see her sister with ‘her clothes… off’ (Emphasis from film). This line shows the director’s fault in so many ways. First, this is terrible acting on Birch’s part (She would go on to be decent in her later films such as Now and Then and American Beauty). Second, this is obviously in the director’s opinion the best take of the line which I don’t find in the least bit amusing. Thus, Donoghue is also at fault for having emphasis added in the script. It might have worked on paper but when she realized what she was dealing with the line should’ve been re-written.
And lastly, this also tends to point out the glaring yet unexplainable phenomena that many American directors have such a difficult time getting quality performances out of child actors whereas we see many fine performances by youths from all around the world. I believe part of the problem is that we as Americans coddle the child actor and view them as inferior giving them stupid and/or annoying roles and the directors seldom have enough understanding of these performers to guide them when a role does require more out of them.
Rosemary (Eve Gordon) is talking to Lily on the stairs about how her husband has left her and she doesn’t know how to tell Willard. This is implied in the original and its insertion here further divides our attention away from what the two main storylines really are and they are the relationship between Lily and Ben and between Billie and Willard. We do then switch to them and hear another gem (For some reason most of the poor dialogue in the film, if not all, is reserved for Billie). They are up in the tree and she says ‘I come here when I’m mad which, is most of the time.’ This is such lazy writing we get two major pieces of information which can be conveyed, and is conveyed, through the action of the film at various points. We understand this very quickly in Le Grand chemin mostly because Vanessa Guedj’s performance is much better than Thora Birch’s; the casting director of the French version also deserves kudos for a wise decision.
In this version of the film we also get Billie being somewhat more ignorant than Willard on matters of sex. This coming from the use of a modern setting combined with the switch in what kids from the country and city know depending on country and on time period. We then go to a somewhat of a bonding moment between Willard and Lily in which they are picking string beans and preparing them for dinner. When Ben comes home he utters dialogue that is transplanted and meaningless given the context and Johnson’s lack of talent. His being cast makes me start to wonder if the casting was a marketing gimmick pairing real life spouses at the time (Johnson & Griffith). Ironically, on screen they were as mismatched as in real life.
What we then get is perhaps the biggest fumble of this film which is the exposition of the Reed’s dead child. One of the problems that haunt this version is that in the American version we find this information out too early in the film. This comes from our cultural imperative that films must be about ‘something’ right away. While there’s nothing wrong with that in theory, in this instance we ruin the simplicity of the film and also create a paltry melodrama by making Lily go into the baby’s room to hold things and cry. This makes all the emotions we feel in this film absolutely manipulated and contrived. Whereas in the French version all we see is Pello going into the room after a fight to destroy it. This is our first exposure to the room and we instantly see that is a museum of sorts for their dead child. The emotions elicited by his actions are real because as soon as we see it: 1) We know why Marcelle kept it unchanged. 2) we see Pello trying to destroy it to hurt her. This is the fault of the American studio because they underestimated the audience’s intelligence, which is always a sinful act by a filmmaker which sadly is committed all too often.
Billie at one point insists on finding her father who it turns out works at a roller skating rink. She goes there and is rejected. Paradise also on a few occasions tries to make Billie’s mother, the waitress, a central character. These are two inventions of the American version of this film which water down and show weakness in their filmmaking. Not only are the makers of Paradise unwilling to tell a simple story but they cannot even be subtle and they throw in unnecessary scenes of expositions amongst newly created adult characters who have never existed in the framework of this story. Even when a child actor is given a large role in an American film here we still find reticence to let the weight of the film rest on his/her shoulders. Something the French are extremely adept at doing.
Paradise is not a bad film. Considering it is a remake of a French film I saw prior, it’s decent. It is, however, nothing to write home about. It misses the elusive magic and perhaps indigenous uniqueness that Le Grand chemin had. And it was doomed to be inferior from the start taking that into account which makes me wonder why a remake was allowed to happen in the first place.