What's the secret ingredient of a feel-good movie? In the Summer of Gump, at least, it appears to be virtue. Identifying with characters who act better than we ever could, we end up feeling better about ourselves. Their nobility becomes our narcotic. The housekeeper-nanny Whoopi Goldberg plays in Corrina, Corrina is so wise and earthy and good that we start feeling virtuous the moment she shows up. It's the early '60s, and Goldberg's Corrina Washington, a college graduate who earns her living cleaning white people's homes, is hired by the newly widowed Manny Singer (Ray Liotta) to look after his 7-year-old daughter, Molly (Tina Majorino). Molly hasn't spoken a word since her mother's funeral. And Manny, an ad-jingle writer, is too mired in work and grief to see how much she needs him. But Corrina can see it; she can see everything. Gazing tenderly from behind a mock-stoic scowl, she works her playful restorative magic, coaxing Molly out of her shell.
But what of poor Manny? Ah, Corrina knows his sadness too: She lost her husband when he went out for some cigarettes and never returned. The bond between these two develops slowly, at the dinner table, as Corrina impresses Manny with her amazing musical and lyrical erudition. She knows jazz, she knows classical; she knows how old Erik Satie was (only 22) when he composed the Trois Gymnopédies. Did I mention that she writes poetry? Displaying a singular knack for words, Corrina sits down at the piano with Manny and helps him hone a jingle for Jell-O Pudding (naturally, all the ad guys love it). With Corrina and Manny growing closer, and Molly metamorphosing into a veritable smile machine, the three begin to resemble that rare and precious thing, a happy family. Except that ''mommy'' is the housekeeper. And she's black. Can Manny and Corrina overcome barriers of race and class and admit they're falling in love?
Corrina, Corrina is a domestic tearjerker spun out of randomly heartwarming, aren't-people-just-the-best? moments. It's The Sound of Music remade as an AT&T commercial. The movie was written, produced, and directed by Jessie Nelson, who has never made a commercial feature before but is already more than proficient at a certain brand of low-rent audience squeezing. She gets the ducts flowing. But at a rather steep price: The movie is so eager to have you embrace everyone on screen that it ends up sacrificing depth, emotional consistency, even basic period sense. Manny, Jewish and a professed nonbeliever, clashes with Corrina over the issue of whether to tell Molly there's a heaven; then the ''conflict'' melts away like margarine. Molly and Manny get over Mommy's death in a cute little therapeutic scene in which Corrina teaches them to sock a plastic punching doll and get rid of their anger a bit of psychobabble no one would have dreamed of in the early '60s. And why on earth would Corrina, a woman who has found her very identity through education, keep Molly out of school day after day, insisting she's ''not ready'' to go back (this after the girl has been grinning for weeks)?
Goldberg gives a likably relaxed performance, and she and Liotta are very sweet together; they make the movie watchable. Yet their tenderness is curiously asexual, perhaps because the script doesn't give them a chance to achieve a true intimacy. They have to flesh out roles that are skeletons of good intentions. There's something disingenous about the way that Corrina, Corrina at once soft-pedals and fetishizes its characters' racial and cultural differences. On the one hand, it's an issue Corrina and Manny barely discuss. Yet the film leans heavily on the notion that Corrina, with her churchy-jazzy African-American roots, is bringing feeling and compassion into the lives of middle-class Jewish atheists. That's a rather queasy idea never more so than in the awful scene where Molly sits on the porch with her grandma, who lifts her sagging Yiddishe heart to sing (one word at a time), ''Theese leetle light of mine. I'm goink to let eet shine!'' The movie, I'm afraid, comes uncomfortably close to saying that this is what it looks like when an ice person melts. C