‘90s Love Story Locked in the ‘50s : Movie review: ‘Corrina, Corrina,’ with Whoopi Goldberg and Ray Liotta, is well-meaning, but its portrait of the races keeps them apart rather than together.
In “Corrina, Corrina,” 7-year-old Molly Singer (Tina Majorino) reacts to the death of her mother by becoming mute. Her father, Manny (Ray Liotta), has to hold down a job writing jingles for an ad agency so he interviews for a housekeeper and, after the usual comic mishaps, ends up with the distinctly overqualified Corrina Washington (Whoopi Goldberg). It’s a foregone conclusion that Corrina will get the girl to speak again, just as it’s inevitable that Manny and Corrina will become attracted to each other.
In fact, just about everything in this heartfelt plodder is predictable. First-time writer-director Jessie Nelson serves up vintage cliches in a ‘50s setting--the dullness seems to be part of the period decor.
It’s a welcome moment early on when Molly begins talking again--partly because her protracted muteness becomes rapidly annoying--but you kind of wish some of the other characters would shut up. As Manny’s mother, Erica Yohn really overdoes the yenta stuff. (The late Don Ameche, in his last, brief appearance, plays her husband. He’s mute too.) A prospective mate of Manny’s (Wendy Crewson) is broadly caricatured as an on-the-make huntress. Corrina’s sister, Jevina (Jenifer Lewis), is forever going on about how Corrina should settle down with the nice suitor across the street (Steven Williams) and forget about getting close to her white boss. But we know better. When Corrina--who has a college degree in musicology--helps Manny out of a rut on a jingle for Jell-O, their soulmate status is secured.
At the heart of the heartfeltness is Molly’s wish for Corrina and her father to pair up. She’s a pint-sized matchmaker who sees nothing odd in the pairing. (Her child’s wisdom is supposed to shame our misgivings.) But even though Nelson takes a very “understanding” view of the interracial involvements, she points up the disparities between black and white so often that she never lets you forget them.
She cross-cuts between life at the Singer household and life with Jevina’s large family, where Corrina also lives. The cross-referencing serves to keep these worlds apart rather than bring them together. And there’s an embarrassing, misguided scene when Molly sings with Jevina’s kids in the church choir, and they trade racial barbs without comprehending the force of what they’re saying. (The scene is misguided because it’s treated as a lickety-split learning experience; there’s no pain in it.)
Even though the ‘50s period flavor is constantly reinforced, Corrina is more like a figure from the ‘90s. She makes no attempt to “fit into” the white world, and her standard-bearer stance seems a bit too self-righteous. Corrina comes across as archetypal anomaly; she’s in the movie to bring Manny, the grieving atheist, to his senses and get him to talk to God.
But Goldberg is at her best when she’s not being noble and edifying. She’s been excellent in the movies for years, ranging from “The Long Walk Home,” in which she also played a maid, to “Soapdish” and “The Player.” Her comic timing was the only reason to check out “Made in America” and “Sister Act 2.” In “Corrina, Corrina” she’s best in the brief scenes in which she’s dilly-dallying with Molly--when she’s not trying to massage our social consciousness. In the scenes with Ray Liotta, who seems gamefully miscast, all we get is massage.
The two liveliest actors in the movie are not the leads. As the dingbat housekeeper who has a brief run with the Singers, Joan Cusack is marvelous, as usual. (Why isn’t she getting bigger roles?) And, as Percy, one of Jevina’s kids, little Curtis Williams steals every scene he’s in. You get the feeling he could steal from the best.
* MPAA rating: PG, for thematic material. Times guidelines: It includes funeral scenes and an attempted seduction. ‘Corrina, Corrina’
Tina Majorino: Molly Singer
Whoopi Goldberg: Corrina Washington
Ray Liotta: Manny Singer
Don Ameche: Grandpa Harry
A New Line Cinema presentation. Written and directed by Jessie Nelson. Producers Steve Tisch, Paula Mazur. Executive producers Ruth Vitale and Bernie Goldmann. Cinematographer Bruce Surtees. Editor Lee Percy. Costumes Francine Jamison-Tanchuck. Art director Dina Lipton. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.
* In limited release at the AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City; (310) 553-8900.