Film Reviews

Jenny from the Crock

Maid in Manhattan, in which Jennifer Lopez goes from pauper to princess, comes not from a screenplay but from a handful of self-help books and fairy tales and fashion magazines cut and pasted together in a glossy montage and committed to celluloid. Characters, made from the highest-grade cardboard and resplendent in the latest Dolce & Gabbana silks, do not talk to each other but at each other in glib, stirring aphorisms. They say things like, "Anything is possible," "You don't know what you can do till you have to," "These are the golden years, don't waste 'em," "What we do does not define us, what defines us is how we rise after we fall," "It's a sign of character to give someone a second chance" and other one-line pick-me-ups. They group-dance to Diana Ross's anthemic "I'm Coming Out," a sure sign of impending liberation from working-class shackles. They come from the slums of the Bronx and wind up in castles in Manhattan, and when there are no glass slippers about, all they need do is slip into a pair of Manolo Blahnik pumps and a vintage, priceless Harry Winston necklace to land a prince. Maid in Manhattan plays like something Dr. Phil and Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw might have written during a commercial break: a feel-good fantasy that sounds deep but in fact has no more depth than a kiddie pool drained for winter.

Maid in Manhattan has all the spunk of a math problem, all the charm of a marketing team's research. We know nothing of our protagonists save that they're beautiful people who will wind up with each other, race and class status be damned -- or ignored completely. Lopez, as Marisa the Hotel Maid, will occasionally say something wise and pithy about living conditions in the ghetto -- she is, after all, still Jenny from the block -- or mouth off to her mama about how she has every right to date rich white plutocrat Chris Marshall (played by Ralph Fiennes, whose teeth now resemble slices of Wonder bread), but in the end, she winds up with Fiennes not because she is wise or plucky, but because she is Jennifer Lopez.

Chris, the most blandly handsome Republican since Dan Quayle, falls for Marisa not because of who she is deep down, but for her surface -- because she looks just like J.Lo. Fiennes (or, perhaps, R.Fi?) is smitten before she says a word, because he sees her in purloined designer threads and mistakes her for a guest in the hotel, not the maid who was sent to make the bed. Before he knows a single thing about her, they're walking in Central Park, making meaningless small talk and falling in love (and into bed, under the most disquieting and duplicitous of circumstances) because that's just the way things happen in movies like this.

When the truth is revealed, when Chris discovers Marisa is but a lowly servant, he will fret and stare into space, but never do we suspect their happy ending is in jeopardy. After all, theirs is the most prefabricated of Cupids -- Marisa's ten-year-old son, Ty (Tyler Garcia Posey), an aspiring Young Republican with a Nixon fetish -- and Marisa is surrounded by a cheering gang of multiculti maids who prod her on to a better life, be it as housekeeping manager or wife of a would-be senator. She's so damned wonderful that even when her reckless and selfish behavior jeopardizes the job of the hotel's head butler (played by a tragically wasted Bob Hoskins, bringing quiet dignity to a film that deserves none), he forgives and supports her. They all dream of a better life, Marisa just gets to live it.

Director Wayne Wang once manufactured gauzy art-house movies aimed at the cineplex crowd (The Joy Luck Club) till he finally gave in and gave up (Anywhere But Here). With screenwriter Kevin Wade (responsible for Meet Joe Black, in which Brad Pitt played Death and we prayed for it), he likely imagined Maid as a Cinderella with a social conscience, their heroine as a Puerto Rican poster girl for empowerment. But the soapy froth they've concocted washes away any hint of grit; the movie reeks of Chanel and Cheer, just as their Manhattan sparkles in a way even Woody Allen would find too blinding. When the filmmakers try to peer behind the doors separating the swank hotel's staff from its precious guests (including Natasha Richardson as a wealthy pain in the ass who believes Chris fancies her), they find not a Gosford Park but a sitcom populated by lovable archetypes who dream of moving up by marrying up. Of course, there's no room for commentary of any kind, caustic or satiric, in a movie inhabited by millionaires dreaming of marrying other millionaires, all of them bankrupt in their own dreary way.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky