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SWIMMING LESSON 'MERMAIDS' KEEPS ITS HEAD ABOVE WATER, BUT JUST BARELY

MOM DOESN'T make real meals. She makes things like cheese ball pick-me-ups and marshmallow kebabs. Life, for her, is an endless series of hors d'oeuvres. She wears the tightest and cheapest-looking slacks in the Northeast (and has the body for them), sleeps around a lot and, when the going gets tough in one town, packs up her two daughters to move on to the next.

It's 1963. So when she dresses for dates, she sashays around her bedroom singing along with Peggy Lee's version of Little Willie John's "Fever" and Eydie Gorme singing "Blame It on the Bossa Nova."

Her 15-year-old daughter wears a cross around her neck, obsesses about nuns and saints, names her younger sister after a saint "who's a virgin beekeeper," prays a lot before dinner and sings along with the Singing Nun's "Dominique" -- all in spite of the fact that the family is Jewish. The kid yearns for the carnal congress her mother apparently finds so easy, calls her mother "Mrs. Flax" and congratulates herself for not killing her.

When the three Flaxes -- mother and two daughters -- cross the street after grocery shopping, they look like a mother duck leading a procession of baby ducklings.

The struggle to be adorable isn't one that generally benefits from being pushed as hard as Richard Benjamin's "Mermaids" pushes it. The movie is in imminent danger all the way through of falling into willful, wrongheaded whimsy (a la "The Lemon Sisters") and drowning.

Benjamin wasn't even hired for the job of directing it until Cher, the movie's star, had worked her way through a few directors who didn't seem to want to make the movie she wanted. Benjamin, ordinarily, is a man who prides himself on caring less about how a movie comes out than never making any trouble for anyone important.

He turns out, nevertheless, to have been an inspired choice to make "Mermaids." That's because the best thing about Richard Benjamin has always been his wife, the wonderful actress Paula Prentiss -- the beguiling woman who would have resulted if someone had managed to meld Rosalind Russell, Jane Russell and Eve Arden into one lean body.

Prentiss hasn't made a movie in several years because, alas, she is probably too old now for the sort of low-voiced, daftly sexy roles she used to carry off with witty aplomb ("What's New, Pussycat," "Catch-22," "Move").

There are times in this movie when Cher, for all her conspicuous Cherness (and stupendous body -- boy, do all those health spa exercises work), seems as close to Paula Prentiss as anyone in movies has come in a long time. And Benjamin must have had something to do with that. So, too, must he have had something to do with the eerie accuracy of a scene in which everyone learns of John F. Kennedy's assassination.

D-Day for Mrs. Flax's hors d'oeuvres lifestyle comes when she meets Mr. Lansky (Bob Hoskins), a shoe store proprietor who has been on his own since his wife "just up and left me one day in the middle of vacuuming. She didn't even turn the damn thing off." He is a shoe salesman with the soul of a painter (and the sole of one, too, no doubt).

He tries never to get involved with a woman when the World Series is about to start. But for the uninhibited Mrs. Flax he'll make an exception.

All this time her daughter, the would-be novitiate (Winona Ryder), is trying to swim her way through the kind of hormonal tidal wave that comes once in a lifetime. At this stage of the game, Ryder has gotten adolescent weirdness down to a science.

Many of the lines in June Roberts' script are genuinely clever. And Cher, Winona Ryder and Bob Hoskins are so winning that all the assaultive adorability in the world couldn't sink it.

Movie Mermaids Rating *** An eccentric '60s mother and her two daughters. Starring Cher, Winona Ryder and Bob HOskins. Rated Pg-13 at the Maple Ridge, Thruway, Mckinley and Summit Mall Theaters.

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