Written for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Office of Film and Broadcasting.
Agreeable if formulaic romantic comedy in which a charming politician (Ralph Fiennes) mistakes a hotel maid (Jennifer Lopez) for a wealthy guest. Appealing performances from the main and supporting cast help Wayne Wang’s familiar comedy of errors go down easily enough despite an autopilot resolution, along the way touching on issues of class and opportunity.
He’s a wealthy, unattached scion of a political dynasty; she’s a hard-working maid whose mother and workplace "sisters" discourage her from yearning for more. An updated "Cinderella" story in the Pretty Woman mold, Wayne Wang’s Maid in Manhattan (Columbia) makes agreeably diverting viewing for most of its 105-minute running time, though after the magic runs out at midnight the movie meanders through an autopilot resolution that lacks a glass slipper.
Jennifer Lopez credibly sheds her diva image to play Marisa, a hardworking single mother who may or may not have been married to the unreliable, irrelevant father of her ten-year-old son Ty (Tyler Posey). Far from pining away for her prince to come someday, Marisa dreams of working her way up to a management position, but is inhibited by the fatalistic attitudes of her peers and especially of her defeatist mother.
Ralph Fiennes proves charming and magnetic in the blandly written Prince-Charming role of Christopher Marshall, a New York senatorial hopeful whose father and grandfather were career politicians. Unlike Marisa, Marshall has no obvious drive or passion about his work — though his agitated campaign manager (Stanley Tucci) has enough emotion for both of them. What he does have is a reputation as a bit of a frivolous ladies’ man; he’s the one who seems to be on the lookout for his princess to come along.
And, the first time he really sees her, Marisa certainly looks the part. As a hotel maid, Marisa strives to be invisible, despite being constantly surrounded by ostentation and luxury. One day, prodded by a coworker (Marissa Matrone), she succumbs to a momentary temptation to play dress-up with an extravagant outfit from the wardrobe of a wealthy guest. Naturally, that’s when Chris walks in and sees her. A fairy godmother couldn’t have worked it out better.
Afterwards, the comedy mounts as Chris tries to pursue the charming woman he met in the luxury suite — only to find her mysteriously transformed into another woman entirely, frivolous socialite Caroline Sincaire (broadly comic Natasha Richardson). And, of course, Marisa must now avoid being seen by Chris in her hotel-maid persona, which leads to obvious complications when she’s required to serve at a luncheon for Chris and Caroline.
Marisa’s problem doesn’t escape the notice of the hotel’s very British butler, Lionel (Bob Hoskins); indeed, one suspects that very little does. Crisply efficient, unflappably dignified, and implicitly discreet, Hoskins is the very picture of the archetypal English butler (he reportedly studied the "Butler’s Manual" in preparation for the role), and one of the film’s unqualified pleasures.
While Lopez and Fiennes are both appealing, there’s not much chemistry between them, perhaps because Lopez keeps her character’s feet warily grounded in reality, never allowing herself to be swept along by the fantasy. Compensating for that, Fiennes connects effectively with likable young Posey, who as Marisa’s son represents her vulnerable side.
Along the way, the movie touches on issues of class and opportunity, without trying to treat these themes with any real depth or insight. Marisa has a few proud speeches and suggests that Chris needs to know more about life in the projects before reducing their problems to sound bites, but this observation itself is just another sound bite. (Somewhat surprisingly, the movie establishes that Chris is a Republican — but not before first making clear that he has a strong environmental voting record.)
The "Cinderella" formula reaches its apex in a big ballroom scene, in this case a swanky political event that Marisa attends with Chris. Knowing that she’s risking her job with the masquerade, Marisa is determined to say goodbye; yet the fairy-tale formula finally gives way completely to modern sensibilities as the ballroom scene gives way to a bedroom scene.
The story never quite regains its footing after that, as a series of perfunctory plot machinations bundles the couple through an inevitable pattern of breakup and reunion. By this point, though, the audience has either bought into the romance or not; those who have will be along for the ride, and will be reasonably satisfied with the happy ending. A clever, whimsical denouement ends the movie on a high note, wrapping up various plot threads and providing a glimpse into the characters’ futures.
Maid in Manhattan is no classic, but it goes down easily enough.
Because of an implied non-marital sexual
encounter and some sexual references, crude language, and
profanity, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops classification
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.