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MOVIE REVIEW : Goldberg’s Exquisite Portrait of ‘Clara’

Times Film Critic

In the middle of the almost disposable plot of “Clara’s Heart” (citywide) sits the sturdy, exquisitely shaded character study by Whoopi Goldberg of Jamaican housekeeper Clara Mayfield. And as an unexpected bonus, there is the delightful debuting turn by young Neil Patrick Harris as the wretched little rich boy who falls to her care.

The story zigs and zags. You can’t believe that this screenplay, adapted by Mark Medoff from Joseph Olshan’s novel, is going to be as predictable as it is--and it is. Then it gives a little hop and surprises you.

The surprises may not come quite often enough for some, but at all times there is Goldberg’s glowing performance to keep us fascinated, or a nice salty bit of humor, or a great little character riff by Harris that’s completely endearing.

All and all, it adds up to a delightful, unpretentious movie, hands down the richest work Whoopi Goldberg has done on the screen.

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She enters the world of 15-year-old David Hart (Harris) after his rich parents’ Jamaican vacation, taken to distract his mother Leona (Kathleen Quinlan) from the tragedy of a baby daughter’s crib death.

Clara Mayfield is a maid on the island, whose straight talk and strength cuts through Leona Hart’s alcohol- and pill-induced haze. Impulsively, Leona invites Clara to work for the family at their waterfront estate outside Baltimore, somewhat to the annoyance of Leona’s husband, Bill (Michael Ontkean).

But Bill’s objections are no match for the fury with which David greets this interloper. Bright but undisciplined, already feeling his athletic father’s disgust at his athletic shortcomings, David greets the sight of an unruffled Clara, being escorted to a guest bedroom--not even the servants’ quarters--with an all-out attack.

“Little boy, you better aim that meanness somewhere else,” Clara says thoughtfully, “not act so dreadful around Clara.”

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A droll, self-contained savant; Mary Poppins without the magic: It sounds dreadful, but take heart. Under the resourceful direction of Robert Mulligan, “Clara’s Heart” never cloys and it never condescends.

Experience may tell us that Clara and David will become best of friends, but there’s no predicting scenes like the brimmingly affectionate ones among Clara’s friends in Baltimore’s Jamaican community, nor the moments when David mimics Clara’s island patois hilariously well.

It’s a good thing the boy and the woman have one another, since David’s family begins to crack up around him shortly after Clara arrives. It’s one of the problems of the movie that every family member, or even every adjunct--like dad’s decorator girlfriend, or mother’s grief-guru (Spalding Gray)--is so impressively selfish. It leaves absolutely no one else to care about.

You may be tickled when Gray, who conducts extremely lucrative seminars nationwide on overcoming grief, says to David, on behalf of all four adults: “You’re a statistic-kid, but each one of us wants you to be a happy statistic.” But that’s about the only fun to come from this self-indulgent quartet. Each one of them has only No. 1 clearly in mind, and that one isn’t the Happy Statistic.

In contrast, Clara’s friends, especially Blanche (Hattie Winston), offer David a glimpse of real warmth and community. There is, of course, a buried secret and a wrenching emotional scene involving the beautiful Dora (Beverly Todd), another figure from Clara’s past life. This is melodrama of major proportions, but it’s saved from mawkishness and given enormous power by Goldberg’s considerable presence.

Something about Neil Patrick Harris may remind you of a slightly older Brandon DeWilde (slightly older than he was in “Shane”): humor, watchfulness, fine comic timing. He can be regarded as a real discovery.

There are also lovely technical details to savor: a rueful, poignant score by Dave Grusin; impeccable, evocative photography by England’s great Freddie Francis; Jeffrey Howard’s production design combined with Stephen Walker’s art direction and Anne Ahrens’ set decoration. The sets are exactly on target--at the Harts’ rich but impersonal modern country mansion (the house that Conran built), Clara’s neat, spool-bed apartment or Ontkean’s ostentatious bachelor digs--all chrome and glass and money.

Most of all, under Mulligan’s direction “Clara’s Heart” (MPAA-rated PG-13) signals a project that, at last, is not the arrant squandering of Whoopi Goldberg’s warm and singular talents. And that in itself is lovely news.

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