Maid in Manhattan (review)

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Suite and Sour

This is very clever. It’s the press kit for Maid in Manhattan. It’s a DVD-type case containing a CD-ROM with production photos — fairly standard these days. But the package runs with the hotel theme: the press notes look like a room-service menu, a do- not- disturb sign featuring our happy couple is included, as is a mint for your pillow. The whole thing — this is the best part — comes in a miniature pillowcase.

If only the movie itself were half as witty. This Cinderella for the 21st century is every bit as predictable as you think it is — save your $10 and run the scenario through in your head, and you’ll probably come up with something more entertaining that what’s on the screen here, or least one that’s easier on your wallet. The “playboy politician” and the hotel maid from the Bronx; he mistakes her for someone else far richer and more socially connected; they fall in love in an hour; she has to hide her identity; he learns her secret; they argue; they live happily ever after. Just to ensure that there’s no suspense whatsoever as to the outcome of the film, the poster features the two of them in a romantic embrace, and her wearing an outfit worth more than a maid earns in a year.
This is the stuff of bread and circuses, a feel-good movie to surprise no one and yet give all us working-class saps a sliver of hope, that some of us may escape the ‘hood and snag a beautiful spouse at the same time… a fantasy made all the more potent, I’m sure, by the fact that Jennifer Lopez, who’s made such an issue out of her rise from the streets of the Bronx to superstardom, plays the hotel maid from the Bronx. Hey, if J. Lo. can get Ralph Fiennes (or Ben Affleck), then who’s to say that all those maids and teachers and waitresses and all the other gals in made- for- romantic- comedies professions can’t, too? Keep slaving away, girls, and someday the Sexiest Man Alive will order a cup of coffee at your station.

Maid in Manhattan shoots for progressiveness: Lopez’s (Enough, The Wedding Planner) Marisa Ventura applies for a management training program at the Beresford Hotel (which any New Yorker will recognize as the Waldorf Astoria), the first maid to do so. She’s smart and self-sufficient — she don’t need no man to support her! But her career aspirations get sidetracked when her deception is discovered — it just doesn’t do to have one of the servants pretending to be one of the served — and she’s forced to start over, a new job at a different hotel (we’re left to wonder what she told her new boss when asked why she left her previous job). It’s a disconcerting subtext: You must choose between man and career… until you’ve got your man, perhaps, and his money and influence can allow you to indulge your little work hobby.

But what makes Maid more cringe-inducing than most romantic comedies is the grating anti-chemistry between Lopez and Ralph Fiennes, as political scion Christopher Marshall. Fiennes does angst-ridden romantic misery well, as in The End of the Affair or The English Patient, but happy-go-lucky man-about-town doesn’t sit well on him — though Marshall scampers with his dog like an “ordinary guy,” Fiennes looks like he can’t wait for the director to yell “Cut!” in order to get away from the beast. And he doesn’t look much happier with Lopez, either. In their big romantic moments, when the music swells and we’re all supposed to swoon, it’s clear he’s planted his kisser somewhere under her nose and above her mouth. If he can’t stand to actually kiss her — no one is asking for wild tongue action, just a genuine-looking smooch — how can we believe any of it?

The bigger mystery of why the director didn’t stage these scenes so we couldn’t actually see their mouths and so wonder at how little Fiennes could stand to be in the same room with Lopez starts to resolve when you know that Wayne Wang’s last film was the harsh anti-romance The Center of the World. Perhaps he was making a sly commentary on what audiences will put up in their quest to indulge ridiculous flights of fancy. Absurdity, contrivance, and predictability are completely acceptable, as long at they get to pretend for two hours that two beautiful people are love, and all evidence to the contrary will never dissuade them.

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