When a moviemaker wants to dabble in American social issues--but avoid confronting them head-on--the common refuge is the 1950s. That decade, growing gauzier and less distinct by the moment, has been reduced to a neat set of cliches suitable to the purposes of almost any storyteller burning to make a point--a point clouded by the mists of time and nostalgia.
The conventional wisdom:
1. The mindless conformists of the Fifties all ate frozen TV dinners while watching Name That Tune.
2. Suburbia was the only locus. To live there, a woman needed a couple of kidney-shaped throw rugs. A man needed a job writing advertising jingles.
3. Everybody was white except the maid.
Corrina, Corrina, the semiautobiographical pet project of writer/producer/director Jessie Nelson, is anchored in just that kind of world-of-Eisenhower fantasy--right down to the '56 Chevy convertible in the driveway and the rock-and-roll and jazz tunes on the soundtrack. Nelson threatens always to swamp her movie with atmospheric details, but she also finds time to loose a torrent of emotion--some of it as processed as Cheez Whiz, some of it authentically moving.
Want to construct a comic tearjerker with a liberal conscience? Combine a cute seven-year-old whose mother has just died with a distraught father who has no time for his own grief. Then bring in a smart, sassy black housekeeper who saves them both, gives them religion and, just maybe, increases her own self-esteem. Against all odds, have the white Jewish widower and the divorced black housekeeper fall in love.
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Nelson, who shopped this project around for ten years, veers close to the nonsense line. But when the movie gets near the edge, the actors pull it back. Not everyone could. The real savior here is Whoopi Goldberg, who does her best work in years as Corrina Washington, the hardworking housemaid who also knows her Eric Satie and her Gertrude Stein but has never gotten a chance to show it. Her ambition is to write liner notes for jazz albums, but her reality is scrubbing other folks' linoleum. She takes the job tending numb, silent Molly Singer because she needs it, but she winds up a believable surrogate mother.
Ray Liotta, who's played bad guys for most of his career, is the bewildered father, Manny Singer. And if it's a little hard to believe that a guy who knocks out Mr. Potato Head jingles and Jell-O ditties can actually get writer's block, Liotta still puts together a solid portrait of a young father in crisis. Little Tina Majorino does her part, too: She eats very little of the scenery.
The healing-of-hearts element in Corrina, Corrina works pretty well, but you'll have to make up your own mind about the interracial romance in the era of Ike. There's an aura of wishful thinking about it, as if the moviemaker is trying so hard to strike a social harmony that she's in constant danger of blowing it. This is equally evident in the mawkish scenes demonstrating (for the umpteenth time) the innocent color-blindness of children. The presentation is so pat and glib that you begin to distrust it, just as you must distrust Nelson's pat and glib view of the decade itself. In the end, in fact, the whole movie may be just a little too virtuous for its own good, despite the best of intentions.
A note: That's Don Ameche, of course, in the role of Manny Singer's aged father, Harry. Harry dies in the movie, and Ameche died for real on the last day of shooting. This well-acted, if overwrought, fantasy of the Fifties is worth watching if only to see him for the last time.