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Maid in Manhattan (2002)

DIRECTOR: Wayne Wang

CAST: Jennifer Lopez, Ralph Fiennes, Bob Hoskins, Stanley Tucci, Natasha Richardson, Frances Conroy, Tyler Garcia Posey

REVIEW:

There have been innumerable versions of the Cinderella story, some conventional (the animated Disney version), some fresh, irreverent, and enjoyable (Ever After), some simply redundant, and Maid in Manhattan is surely one of the most uninspired and perfunctory of them all.  Granted, romantic comedies are rarely original, but Maid in Manhattan is such a formulaic, by-the-numbers movie with nary a spark of energy or distinction that it’s one of those most depressing movies to sit through- something completely mediocre. 

Here, “Cinderella” is Marisa Ventura (Jennifer Lopez), a cliched Latina maid at the prestigious Beresford Hotel with dreams of becoming a manager. “Prince Charming” is Chris Marshall (Ralph Fiennes), Senatorial candidate staying at the hotel.  A coincidental meeting of Chris and Marisa’s son Ty (Tyler Garcia Posey) leads to the candidate catching Marisa ill-advisedly trying on a wealthy guest’s (Natasha Richardson) clothes, and soon they’re both smitten.  Thus begins the completely predictable series of mistaken identities and misunderstandings that waste 90 minutes of our time, since is there really anyone in the audience with doubts about exactly how things are going to wrap up?  Of course, there are “fairy godmothers” of sorts, in the form of Marisa’s spunky fellow maids, and her kindly mentor Lionel (Bob Hoskins), and an “evil stepmother” stand-in (Richardson’s hotel guest, although she’s not really villainous, just obnoxious and self-absorbed).  Can two people from different worlds overcome the barriers that separate them and be together?  Do you live under a rock?

Of course, mistaken identity and misunderstanding is key to the basic “Cinderella” formula, but Maid in Manhattan stretches our disbelief to unforgivably contrived levels on multiple occasions.  We’re prepared to accept a bit in movies like this—unlikelihoods like Jennifer Lopez miraculously fitting perfectly into the obviously significantly taller and slimmer Natasha Richardson’s clothes are the kind of common “suspension of disbelief” we might be persuaded to overlook—but Maid in Manhattan flat-out insults the audience’s intelligence with half-hearted, perfunctory attempts at “character-building” and “down-to-earth” scenes like management-aspiring Marisa fighting with her controlling, inferiority complex-afflicted mother (Priscilla Lopez, no relation to her onscreen daughter), and lecturing well-intentioned Chris about actually seeing the inner-city projects for himself instead of giving speeches about it at $2,000 a plate dinners sharing screentime with impossible-to-swallow ridiculousness like Marisa being allowed to “borrow” a priceless diamond necklace, and her eleven-year-old son questioning Chris at a climactic press conference.  Yea, right.  Marisa’s “colorful” friends goad her into trying on guests’ clothes and take a shot at the handsome would-be-Senator one minute, and then turn around and give her the little “you’re from two different worlds!” speech the next, because it’s in the script.  Apparently we’re supposed to sympathize with Marisa when she “borrows” guests’ clothes and wears them on dates with Chris (which doesn’t exactly paint her as a model of responsibility who deserves to be manager, but the guest is a haughty, unpleasant person, so I guess that makes it ok), and hiss and boo at the big, mean, uncaring hotel managers when they fire her (what exactly else are they supposed to do with a maid who spends her free time running around in guests’ clothes?).  A little fairy tale silliness is one thing, but Maid in Manhattan‘s attempts to blend “realistic” drama and far-fetched contrivances makes it seem schizophrenic, and what makes us less willing to accept the blatantly lazy writing is that we just plain don’t care.  Characters we care about and a movie that generates good will can count a lot toward persuading us to accept some silliness.  Maid in Manhattan is a lazy movie, slapped together lazily, with no imagination or enthusiasm, with two unenthusiastic leads with no chemistry thrown together because they’re both photogenic and reasonably high-profile.

Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes are boring.  When she puts her mind to it and focuses more on acting than being a media personality, Lopez is a better actress than some give her credit for being capable of.  Granted, even if she was in top form, it’s doubtful she would have been able to do much with her paper-thin material here, but she exudes little of the charisma or energy she showed in, say, Selena.  As for her co-star, Fiennes is breezy in the unchallenging role of the handsome, charming love interest, but he’s more bland and lifeless than she is.  His “performance” involves smiling disarmingly a lot, speaking with a somewhat stiff American accent, and going an entire movie without killing anyone.  If Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes—zesty Latina versus cold Englishman—seem like an odd match, they live up to it.  There’s no chemistry between them.  Their interactions are sometimes awkward and never feel more than purely perfunctory.  Lopez doesn’t have anything to do with the scraps she’s thrown, and Fiennes not only shows a distinct lack of energy and enthusiasm, he also seems uncomfortable, like he’d rather be somewhere else.  What few pleasures are to be had are usually from the supporting cast, especially Stanley Tucci, who’s amusing as the kind of manically henpecked lackey he’s become typecast as, and Natasha Richardson as the obnoxious Caroline, who plays her cartoonish caricature with about as much gusto as anyone could expect.  Bob Hoskins walks through with his dignity intact and in his last scene gets to deliver a nice little speech about what it means to serve people, even if it doesn’t really have anything in particular to do with the rest of the movie (another of the incongruous “serious drama” moments” that seem like they’re out of a better movie).

I don’t “hate” Maid in Manhattan.  The movie is too bland to engender any such strong emotion.  It’s just depressing to see Hollywood stoop to such blatant laziness as slapping together something so paint-by-numbers, knowing it will make money anyway from undemanding audiences.

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