`Milk Money' Overcomes Shortcomings To Tickle The Funny Bone

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XX 1/2 "Milk Money," with Melanie Griffith, Ed Harris, and Michael Patrick Carter. Directed by Richard Benjamin, from a screenplay by John Mattson. Alderwood, Everett Mall, Factoria, Gateway, Metro, Mountlake 9, Newmark, Oak Tree, Parkway Plaza. "PG-13" - Parental guidance strongly suggested; mature humor, mild profanity.

"Milk Money" is the kind of movie you could easily condemn as just another derivative example of formulaic Hollywood filmmaking, with a predictable storyline that offers light entertainment but a conspicuous lack of surprises.

But it's just as true that this pleasant, unassuming little comedy manages to overcome its many potential shortcomings. Every once in a while, the chemistry of material and casting is genuinely sweet, and if anyone can breathe new life into the tired role of the hooker with a heart of gold, Melanie Griffith seems perfect for the job.

"Milk Money" sugar-coats the hazards of prostitution even more than "Pretty Woman" did, ignoring the personal and social conditions that can force a woman into the world's oldest profession while casting Malcolm McDowell (who by now must be starving for a good role) as an idiotic, one-dimensional pimp.

But this movie has its heart in the right place, and when Griffith seeks refuge with an eccentric widower (Ed Harris) and his sexually awakening 12-year-old son (Michael Patrick Carter), she blesses them - and us - with irresistible charm, filling an emotional void while seizing the opportunity to fulfill her own neglected dreams. It's the same combination of intelligence and vulnerability that Griffith used to memorable effect in (the now ironically titled) "Working Girl."

Carter meets Griffith when he and a pair of hormonally fidgety buddies leave their sheltered suburb for the big city, having collected $100 in spare change (hence the title) with hopes of seeing a real-live naked lady. Circumstances lead to a mutually beneficial arrangement: hiding out in Carter's treehouse, Griffith eludes her abusive pimp, and Carter hopes she'll hit it off with the very single Harris, an environmental activist who's a bit out of his depth without a loving wife.

You can guess the rest, but the time-honored tradition of fairy tales makes the predictability of "Milk Money" not only tolerable but comforting, with Griffith, Carter and the uprightly goofy Harris forming an endearing triangle of needy misfits.

Rising above his usual lackluster touch, director Richard Benjamin enhances the proceedings with the amusing innocence of a town straight out of Norman Rockwell, cozily realized (in suburban Cincinnati) by top-drawer production designer Paul Sylbert and cinematographer David Watkin.

First-time writer John Mattson caters to cuteness a bit too often, and there are a few scenes - most notably Carter's use of Griffith as a "visual aid" for a sex-ed report - that probably seemed foolproof on the page but turn out to be awkwardly ridiculous on the screen. More often that not, however, "Milk Money" hits the funny bone with warmth and sincerity, hitting marks that could easily have proven elusive.