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Sunday, February 9, 2014

WELCOME TO PARADISE -- movie review by porfle

(NOTE: This review originally appeared online at in 2007.)

In WELCOME TO PARADISE (2007), Debbie Laramie (Crystal Bernard) is one of those unconventional young assistant pastors who does shocking things like taking off her robe when it's too hot in church, or suddenly hollering out during services: "Why don't we all stand up, look to the person next to ya, give 'em a big high-five, and say 'You have never looked better in yer life!'"  So the uptight head pastor (Nick Searcy) boots her out of the big-city church and sends her off to preach in a hick town called Paradise, Texas.

Debbie's a single mom with a teenage son named Hayden (Bobby Edner, SPY KIDS 3-D: GAME OVER) who feels neglected because she's always off preaching somewhere--she doesn't even know he's dyslexic and having trouble in school.  In Paradise, he'll also have to contend with bullies such as Scott (Michael Seaman) whose dad, John Sullivan, happens to be the guy Debbie beat out for the head pastor job, so he already hates her.  He's also a car salesman for his wife Helen's wealthy daddy, Bobby Brown (real-life father and daughter Brian and Elizabeth Dennehy). 

John's a conniving skunk with his sticky fingers in the church treasury and he's not above using questionable means to get rid of Debbie.  As played by Christian stand-up comic Brad Stine, he's one of those cartoonishly stereotypical Texans whose face continuously convulses with broad expressions, winks, etc. 

Several of the other actors seem to be similarly afflicted--it's as though they studied the dialect by watching Deputy Dawg cartoons--and when some of the local gals get together for a gossip session in the beauty shop, it's almost farcical. 

Thank goodness Brian Dennehy's around to keep things grounded to some extent, along with some good performances by Beth Grant as a homeless woman named Frances and co-scripter William Shockley as Kent, a gym coach who befriends Debbie and Hayden.  

It takes Debbie about five minutes to win over her extremely skeptical new congregation, because she's armed with some of those surefire parables that are so simple and meaningful that they blow everyone away.  "I just tell it like it is!" she blurts out in one scene. 

Not only does she invite homeless people to the church (gasp--one of them's even gay!), she also asks a black street singer named Trevor (Lou Beatty Jr.) to sing for the congregation.  One emotion-filled pot luck supper later, and everyone's bursting with love and acceptance.  This is severely tested, however, when Frances the homeless woman accidentally burns down the church. 

Since the weaselly John Sullivan failed to pay the last two insurance premiums, the head bishop (Ken Jenkins, who played Molly Ringwald's father in THE STAND) has decided not to renew the church's charter, leaving Paradise without a church and Debbie without a job. 

But hey--one of the flock has an old barn!  And if they can all get together and turn it into a church before Sunday morning, the bishop will reconsider.  Thus, WELCOME TO PARADISE is transformed into a deluxe, feel-good episode of "Monster House."

This movie wants to be a combination of LILIES OF THE FIELD and ANGEL IN MY POCKET, but it's too superficial and, at times, just plain goofy to rate with them.  Everything's so on-the-nose, from Frances' weepy speech about homelessness at the pot luck supper to the scene where Trevor tells Debbie, "Lady, you're somethin' special" and Frances exclaims "She IS something special!"  There's hardly any actual spiritual depth to the story--Debbie's more of a chipper cheerleader than a spiritual guide. 

But in the final scenes, WELCOME TO PARADISE pulls off something I didn't think it was capable of--it evokes the same kind of feeling I get seeing Sidney Poitier write "Homer Smith" in the wet cement of the church he's just built.  The last few minutes of this movie are outstanding, reaching a level of genuine, heartfelt emotion and sincerity that brings the story to a satisfying end and forces me to boost my rating a notch. It's too bad the rest of the movie couldn't have been that good.

Buy it at


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