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Maid in Manhattan (Wayne Wang, 2002)
Is there a mega-popular American actress that’s currently a more underrated screen presence than Jennifer Lopez? Even though I admittedly haven’t seen her entire body of work (I've missed the reportedly mediocre The Wedding Planner and Enough), when I read the savage reviews that she regularly reaps from critics with an apparent axe to grind, I’m not certain that there is, and that’s too bad since she has an uncanny knack for picking the sort of role that, against all odds, enables me to completely forget her mammoth off-screen baggage. The degree that she’s able to disappear into her roles never ceases to bowl me over. Though I wouldn’t yet make great claims for her as a thespian in the classical sense (her choices don’t really show dramatic ambition, even though she’s acquitted herself quite well in fare like Out of Sight and U-Turn), I can’t deny the charismatic appeal that she exhibits time after time. Her ability not only be empathetic, but to radiate empathy for others, is probably her strongest trait, and it makes the series of questionable star vehicles that she’s chosen to appear in more watchable than they probably should be.
Her latest film, Maid in Manhattan, is superficially a generic fairy tale romp in which Lopez plays Marisa, a maid at a luxury hotel who is mistaken for a guest by an eligible bachelor (Ralph Fiennes) who also happens to be a senatorial candidate. Anyone who’s seen the inferior Pretty Woman, can easily guess where their relationship is headed, but the awareness of class issues grounds this Cinderella story. Consider, for example, the deft way that the film presents Marisa’s modest (by Hollywood standards) career aspirations. She hopes to be an assistant manager at her hotel, but fears ostracism from her peers and her judgmental mother who sees her ambitions as a rejection of the life that she was born into. That sort of social awareness also surfaces when setting up the screwball moments (including a running gag in which a bigoted patron repeatedly calls Marisa “Maria”). In most romantic comedies, the situation is based on a lie which continues to escalate until absurdity kicks in. Maid in Manhattan is no different in that respect except that it explains the lie with the maids’ dogma, which states they should “Strive to be invisible” to the guests of the hotel. Even though Fiennes’ character sees Marisa in her work garb, his upper-class pretensions keep him from really “seeing” her, and that not only drives the plot but also fuels Marisa’s suspicions that her social standing makes her an unfit match for him.
That’s not to suggest that Maid in Manhattan is more concerned with political issues than amorous ones. As a romantic comedy, it works quite well, playing off the considerable charisma between its leads and allowing for priceless exchanges such as the moment where Fiennes looks at Lopez’s back end and says, “It’s perfect,” proving that as much as Lopez can shed her off-screen persona, it never is far from our minds. The ethnically diverse cast is filled with some solid supporting performances, with only Stanley Tucci’s political advisor feeling more like a caricature than a fully realized character. Bob Hoskins makes an especially good impression as Marisa’s mentor and Tyler Garcia Posey delivers a surprisingly schmaltz-free turn as her son. The scenes where Marisa and he converse, and she shows what feels like genuine surprise and delight over the intelligence of his observations are some of the most pleasurable in the film. Perhaps Maid in Manhattan’s skill at depicting its milieu and fleshing out its characters shouldn’t come as a surprise, since those characteristic are director Wayne Wang’s area of expertise. Nonetheless, as a romantic comedy, perhaps the most tired of genres (with the rare exceptions of a film like this year’s Punch-Drunk Love), it stands out amongst its peers. The critical attacks hurled on it, like those on its star, seem mostly unwarranted.
* * * 1/2