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THE NEW YORK TIMES
MOVIE REVIEW | 'MAID IN MANHATTAN'
Puttin' Down Mop, Puttin' On The Ritz
By A. O. SCOTT
December 13, 2002
[Photo: Barry Wetcher/Columbia Pictures]
A Cinderella from the Bronx: Jennifer Lopez stars as a hotel chambermaid in the romantic film "Maid in Mahattan," directed by Wayne Wang.
In her new single, "Jenny From the Block," Jennifer Lopez declares that despite her enormous wealth and global fame, she has not lost touch with her roots. The video may show her canoodling on the deck of a sailboat with the handsome Ben Affleck, her latest beau, and lounging half-dressed on an expensive-looking sofa in a lovely high-rise apartment, but the lyrics insist that at heart she is still a striving, streetwise Puerto Rican girl from New York City.
Ms. Lopez's new movie, the blandly charming romantic comedy "Maid in Manhattan," makes a similar point. Her character, Marisa Ventura, is a single mother who lives in the Bronx and makes her living cleaning rooms in a super-luxurious Manhattan hotel. Even when her fortunes take a fairy-tale turn and she briefly trades in her maid's uniform for a creamy Dolce & Gabbana coat (and, later, a ravishing evening dress accessorized with a Harry Winston necklace), Marisa does not lose her tough, determined attitude. The film's message, like the song's, is that upward mobility is not a betrayal of working-class values but rather their ultimate fulfillment.
This is an appealing idea one that has sustained film comedies at least since the Depression. And Ms. Lopez, even in underwritten, not-funny-enough pictures like this one (or the earlier, somewhat similar "Wedding Planner") has some of the forthright magnetism of an old-time movie star. In the steamy "Jenny From the Block" video, she shows off her body, giving the cable subscribers of America generous glimpses of what may be, in celebrity if not in size, the biggest backside in the world. (At one point Mr. Affleck, to the envy of millions, uses it as a pillow.)
In contrast, "Maid in Manhattan," which opens today nationwide, is chastely directed by Wayne Wang from a script by Kevin Wade that contains just a few (perhaps contractually obligatory) references to that famous aspect of Ms. Lopez's anatomy, and it demonstrates that the most potent source of her sexiness is her eyes. You would have to go back to Claudette Colbert or the young Lauren Bacall to find an actress capable of projecting so much erotic self-confidence in a single gaze. And even when Marisa suffers inevitable humiliations and reversals of fortune, Ms. Lopez retains a suave, straight-backed dignity that makes her a credible feminist heroine as well as a bona fide sex symbol.
Unfortunately, her charisma is hampered by the blandness and banality of the movie itself, which squanders nearly every comic opportunity its urban Cinderella premise provides. Mr. Wang, whose earlier films include "The Joy Luck Club," "Smoke" and the wonderful "Chan Is Missing," has a palpable if sentimental affection for multiethnic urban life and an understated feel for both the indignities and the occasional pleasures of hard work in the service sector.
He respects the professionalism of the hotel workers and the friendly, relaxed solidarity that makes their jobs more bearable. The staff includes Bob Hoskins as a butler whose whispery punctiliousness recalls Anthony Hopkins in "Remains of the Day," Marissa Matrone as Marisa's wisecracking best pal and Chris Eigeman as the predictably uptight manager. All of them show suitable professionalism, but Mr. Wang and Mr. Wade have made them all a little too nice to be funny.
In general the picture is so committed to inoffensiveness and to hammering home its uplifting, bootstrap message that it lacks the necessary element of malice. The only safe satirical scapegoats are rich, single middle-aged women, like Caroline Lane, a brittle and snobbish Sotheby's executive played by Natasha Richardson, and her leathery, bigoted exercise partner (the hilarious and underused Amy Sedaris). They have some humorous moments, but scenes that should have a breakneck, spring-loaded rhythm unwind lazily without silliness or precision.
The plot, which might have been a fizzy exercise in latter-day screwball comedy, is set in motion when Marisa tries on some of Caroline's clothes and with the help of her 10-year-old son (Tyler Garcia Posey) catches the eye of Christopher Marshall (Ralph Fiennes), a wealthy state assemblyman contemplating a run for the United States Senate seat once held by his father.
Marshall, whom the tabloids have dubbed "the playboy politico" and who is devoted to his large dog, is held on a tight leash by his adviser (Stanley Tucci), but he and Marisa nonetheless find time for a stroll in Central Park, where romantic sparks are kindled. Or at least they would be if Mr. Fiennes were not such a damp, milky presence. He tries for a fumbling, rich-guy charm but instead projects a diffidence unsuited either to an ambitious politician or a romantic lead. It's impossible to imagine this guy in bed with an Albany lobbyist, much less with Ms. Lopez.
Marshall does have one remarkable trait: he is a Republican. An environmentalist, silk-stocking John Lindsay type, to be sure, but still, after Spencer Tracy in "State of the Union," you could probably count the sympathetic big-screen members of the G.O.P. on the fingers of one hand. In any case, Marshall's party affiliation, which is no big deal for Marisa, can count as a touch of realism, given the current shape of New York politics.
And to its credit "Maid in Manhattan," more than most films of its kind, does try to find a balance between realism and whimsy, to suggest connections between the fantasy it projects and the world as it is. I only wish it were funnier, more persuasive and less pep-talky and that it came closer in spirit and execution to the studio comedies of the 1930's movies like "Easy Living" or "Midnight" which are its obvious models.
Perhaps, though, such gauzy, biting social comedies are no longer possible, which leads to a troubling thought. For movies like "Maid in Manhattan" to get much better, the economy may have to get much worse.
"Maid in Manhattan" is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some mild profanity and some discreet sexual scenes and references.
MAID IN MANHATTAN
Directed by Wayne Wang; written by Kevin Wade, based on a story by Edmond Dantes; director of photography, Karl Walter Lindenlaub; edited by Craig McKay; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Jane Musky; produced by Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Deborah Schindler and Paul Schiff; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 110 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.
WITH: Jennifer Lopez (Marisa Ventura), Ralph Fiennes (Christopher Marshall), Natasha Richardson (Caroline Lane), Stanley Tucci (Jerry Siegel), Tyler Garcia Posey (Ty Ventura), Frances Conroy (Paula Burns), Chris Eigeman (John Bextrum), Marissa Matrone (Stephanie Kehoe), Amy Sedaris (Rachel Hoffberg), Priscilla Lopez (Veronica Ventura) and Bob Hoskins (Lionel Bloch).