Goldberg's 'Corinna' breaks the cliche in multidimensional maid's tale

August 26, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In synopsis, "Corrina, Corrina" sounds so much like so many other maid-of-color pictures that one faces it with a heavy heart. You know what I'm talking about: There's a crisis in a white family, usually involving a disaffected child. The maid of color, a sexless being of almost surreal sagacity and serenity, boasts unique resources because she's somehow closer to nature than the parents, plus she's invested with all the virtue a thousand years of oppression engenders. She takes the damaged child under her wing and miraculously cures him or her and restores the family to wholeness. Then, her task completed, she fades sentimentally into the abyss.

Ugh. Ick.

Worse, Whoopi Goldberg has already made it once herself, in Maryland no less: "Clara's Heart," in which she rescued Doogie Howser, prior to medical school, from depression when his father and mother broke up. But in "Corrina, Corrina" she didn't even have that fun Jamaican-accent thing going.

It gets worse: The kid is played by Tina Majorino, obnoxiously cute in the seal monstrosity "Andre"; she's a problem child who cannot . . . talk.

And still worse. Do the words "Ray Liotta" strike terror in your heart? They do in mine.

Well, fortunately for us all and me in particular, they don't make movies in synopsis; they make them on film. And fortunately for us, here's "Corrina, Corrina," which is vividly aware of the maid-of-color cliches and gleefully inverts them, gives them a savage tweak. It's a wonderful movie, if a bit sluggish, that never stoops to the kind of worship of color that is secretly the most virulent form of racism.

The setting, beautifully evoked in the flat colors of four decades ago, is Los Angeles in the late '50s, where an ad man named Manny Singer (Liotta) has just buried his wife and is dimly trying ++ to put his life back together, which of course involves hiring a maid and housekeeper to do the usual, plus supervise his now-silent daughter Molly.

The movie needs more discipline: It wastes too much time in bad-maid shtick -- hapless employer gaping in open-mouthed astonishment as a parade of mutant-looking women display their pathological eccentricities. Then it wastes a good 20 minutes on Joan Cusack as maid No. 1, a false start.

But, finally, Goldberg's Corrina Washington is in place. Nothing generic about Corrina: She's not an African-American stereotype, she's a human being. Tough, smart, funny, bitter, she's a college graduate with a bent toward poetry and jazz, who of course can find no place in an America that does not respect the color black nor the gender female. But she can also find no place at home: Her sister (Jenifer Lewis), with whom she lives, despises her because she puts on "airs" about being educated. Mark it well: For once, black culture isn't portrayed as a monolithic petition of grievance.

This is Goldberg's best performance in years. She never panders to the audience or seems to stoop to patented, sure-fire Whoopi-isms. It's carefully controlled, evading sentimentality at every possibility. Even the restoration of Molly's voice, under the guidance of Corrina's patience and decency, seems less a movie-phoney bit of blarney but a slow and natural progression.

Details, details. It's a specifically imagined movie, rather than a generic one -- all the details feel right. I loved the '50s decors, which felt quietly authentic without being excessively polished or over-designed. I loved the fact that Liotta wasn't just an ad man who went to the "office" every day, but specifically a jingle writer, whose career turns on coming up with a few words of catchy gibberish that finds a rhyme for "pudding."

Clearly such specificity had to come from an authentic life, not an imagined one. And so it did: Writer-director Jessie Nelson, whose first film this is, based her screenplay on her own life. Her father was an ad man, her mother died young, a black maid came in and saved her life.

But that doesn't explain some of the brilliant insights into lives she cannot have lived. The movie has an unerringly powerful view of racism not as an explosion of hatred and baiting (though it does happen once) but rather as a slow, steady accrual of assumptions. In liberal suburban L.A. of the '50s, nobody's really bad, and you never hear the N-word -- but there's a kind of presumed invisibility of blackness that comes to be a palpable force in the film, as Corrina is routinely called Manny's "girl" and asked to get the drinks and hang the hats, until the weight of it feels like a ton of pig iron.

And finally, there's the audacity of sex: As Corrina and Manny become more intensely involved, they see beyond each other's color. For the first time, an American movie understands that the maid of color is an actual, living woman, not a moral force. Amazing. Stunning. Terrific.

'Corrina, Corrina'

Starring Whoopi Goldberg and Ray Liotta

Directed Jessie Nelson

Released by New Line

Rated PG

***

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