Talk-show host and so-so actress Ricki Lake is buoyed by a fortunate cast in "Mrs. Winterbourne," a modern fairy-tale that begins awkwardly but will eventually win over most romantics.
It's a lot like "While You Were Sleeping" in its mistaken-identity plot (Does the line "I fell in love with you all!" sound familiar?), but "Mrs. W" is far more uneven. Still, like a vacation occasionally interrupted by bad weather, it's a pleasant escape.
Lake plays Connie Doyle, a dim 18-year-old who goes to New Yawk, hooks up with a loser, gets pregnant and is thrown out on the street. Desperate, she decides to seek out a homeless shelter but, in an unlikely happenstance, gets on the wrong train -- going to Boston -- and is rescued from the ticket-taker by a sweet guy, and his wife, who is also very pregnant. Then, fate, in that absurd way fate has in Hollywood films, creates a horrible train accident in which the nice Mr. and Mrs. Winterbourne are killed and Connie is mistaken for the widow.
Naturally, the family matriarch takes her in, and Connie is so captivated by her rich new life and so devoted to her baby's future that, despite half-hearted attempts, she simply can't tell the truth. So Grace Winterbourne, played with ebullient style by Shirley MacLaine, embraces her as quickly as her skeptical surviving son (Brendan Fraser) snubs her.
Complicated, isn't it? Once the movie gets this cumbersome setup out of the way, complete with an unconvincing voice-over by Lake, it finally starts to relax and get funny. Lake seems more at ease, MacLaine is a bright and wise mom-in-law, and Fraser is a witty, compelling romantic lead as the ice cube melted by Connie's natural warmth.
Unfortunately, this limo ride, as directed by Richard Benjamin ("My Favorite Year"), has plenty of speed bumps. There's an obligatory scene in which MacLaine sings (is that in her contract?); Fraser's transformation is ridiculously fast; and there's a preposterous subplot involving the father of Connie's baby that ties up the loose ends. And we know there won't be loose ends.
Despite its story problems, though, "Mrs. Winterbourne" has engaging characters and a winning formula that make the movie work. It's a triumph of charm over substance.
Starring Ricki Lake, Shirley MacLaine and Brendan Fraser
nTC Directed by Richard Benjamin
Released by TriStar
Rated PG-13 (language, innuendo)
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 4/19/96