“Corrina, Corrina,” starring Whoopi Goldberg as a perky housekeeper who brings solace and joy to a depressed ’50s Jewish household, is a schmaltzy if entertaining comedy-drama. Strong chemistry between Goldberg and Ray Liotta, and a winning performance by child actress Tina Majorino, happily triumph over old-fashioned material and mediocre production values. New Line should expect a favorable B.O. response from diverse age groups to its amiable two-generational yarn, which shows more sensitivity in handling touchy issues like death than other pix of its kind .
Basing her story loosely on personal experience, writer/director Jessie Nelson examines the life of a Jewish family after the mother has suddenly died of cancer. Manny Singer (Liotta) is an ad jingle writer who throws himself into work as a way of dealing with his depression. But his 9-year-old daughter, Molly (Majorino), is so traumatized by the event that she becomes mute.
Tale begins with the desperate Manny interviewing for a maid in a sequence that recalls “Mrs. Doubtfire.” A parade of eccentric women passes through (including a funny turn by Joan Cusack) before Corrina Washington (Goldberg) lands the job. Corrina can’t cook, but she possesses a sassy, quirky personality that Manny thinks will be good for the child. Scripter makes sure to establish that Corrina is a Renaissance woman with knowledge of poetry and music; her talk is peppered with references to Gertrude Stein, Erik Satie (whose music is used here) and Louis Armstrong.
The film moves predictably through all the paces — and moods — of its three characters. After a long silence and enormous efforts by Corrina, Molly utters her first word and grants her first smile. From there, she builds a special rapport with the housekeeper, who becomes a surrogate mom.
As it’s the conservative 1950s, some complications ensue once an interracial romance evolves between Manny and Corrina. And, as if to remind the audience that the broader political context has not been forgotten, a darker tone invades the tale occasionally, as in a restaurant scene in which Corrina is mistaken for a waitress, or when her bitter sister Jevina (Jenifer Lewis) persistently reminds her after each affront that, after all, she is a black woman. The overall mood, however, is sunny and upbeat, as befits the material.
As could be expected, the supporting characters, especially Manny’s yenta mother (Erica Yohn) and Jenny (Wendy Crewson), a divorcee with an eye on Manny, are drawn with a broad brush. Novice helmer Nelson shows no instinct for pacing and exhibits little skill at interesting visual presentation or framing.
With these flaws, the best thing the film has going for it is the first-rate acting of its three leads. Goldberg delivers a restrained yet emotional turn, while Liotta renders a sensitive, multi-shaded perf as the bereaved dad.
Majorino seems to be an acting natural, excelling again in a role that is actually more central and demanding than her previous turn as Meg Ryan’s daughter in “When a Man Loves a Woman.” It’s probably not her fault that she becomes too cute in the last reel, as the whole movie progressively tries too hard to be a crowd-pleaser with its increasing reliance on montage and cross-cutting.
Fortunately, the lively soundtrack uses old pop songs to cue the varying moods, giving some rhythm to a picture that suffers from unmodulated pacing and fumbled editing.
“Corrina, Corrina” features the final performance of veteran actor Don Ameche , who plays Liotta’s sick and dying father.