Writer/director Jessie Nelson tries entirely too hard to infuse her main characters with difficult hurdles to jump. It’s not enough that the potentially but certain-to-be romantic leads of Corrina, Corrina are employer and employee. There’s also the fact that Manny (Ray Liotta) is still grieving over the loss of his wife. That’s why he hires Corrina (Whoopi Goldberg) as his maid and nanny to his daughter, Molly (Tina Majorino), who has taken to not speaking since her mother’s death.

If the obstacles ended there, their relationship might have seemed more plausible, but they don’t. Manny is a staunch atheist, while Corrina is religious. At one point, Manny reproaches his housekeeper for telling Molly that her mother is in Heaven with the angels, and then he lets up with the requests for Corrina not to impose her religious beliefs on his daughter. This is not one of those happy, cheery accept-people-for-who-they-are movies, even though it is. At least it is on one end.

Where the movie really gets into a bind is with the divide between them that really isn’t one except that Nelson sets the movie in the 1950s. Manny is white, and Corrina is African-American.

This specific point seems to be Nelson’s means to showing a love that can conquer all boundaries, because it is the one thing cannot be changed. Corrina can quit, which she does a couple times during the mandatory disagreements and arguments that are needed to add unnecessary tension and more impediments to their relationship, or Manny can fire her, which he does to reach the same result as Corrina’s quitting. Manny will eventually cope with the loss of his wife (although as Liotta plays it, the loss comes across as more of an annoyance), just as Corrina has dealt with her own husband leaving her — left for a pack of cigarettes and never came back.

Manny becomes less stringent when Molly mentions that Corrina has talked about Heaven or the angels, although Corrina still tells his daughter that Manny won’t own up to a belief in an afterlife because he’s “jealous of the angels.” Nelson doesn’t want or perhaps know how to deal with this conflict, and Manny’s last-minute conversion when all the chips are down makes one believe it’s the former.

But neither Manny nor Corrina can change the color of their skin, and that point, out of the blue after scene upon scene of romantic tension, is the one Nelson decides upon which to focus. A neighbor gawks at them exchanging an admitted cute, reflexive kiss on the cheek after Corrina helps Manny put on his jacket, and Manny’s mom (Erica Yohn) worries that her granddaughter is becoming too much like Corrina, what with the singing, dancing, and braids in the hair. Grandma doesn’t say the word she means to (Manny stops her), but Molly does while singing in the choir with Corrina’s nieces and nephew. Then she learns a quick, perfunctory lesson in the hateful nature of racial epithets.

When Nelson isn’t grasping beyond her reach, Corrina, Corrina has some sweet, comparatively truthful moments (Molly’s gradual shift back to talking and learning that being angry is okay, and Manny and Corrina working on a song together before partaking in a duet). Those scenes are vastly overshadowed by the half-hearted messaging.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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