Maid in Manhattan

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

MAID IN MANHATTAN

4/10

USA 2002 : Wayne WANG : 105 mins

Though only a very so-so romantic comedy, Maid in Manhattant marks a major turning-point in the fascinating career of its star Jennifer Lopez. She’s Marisa, a single-mother maid in a ritzy New York hotel. It’s here that, through a series of very implausible convolutions and mistaken-identity contrivances, this modern-day Cinderella ends up falling in love with aspirant Republican senator Chris Marshall (Ralph Fiennes).

Now that ‘J-Lo’ is so ensconsed as a steady sorce of chart-topping hits and tabloid headlines, it’s easy to forget what an impact she made less than five years ago in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. There was serious talk of an best-supporting-actress Oscar nomination until the film’s box-office flop scuppered such suggestions. Since then, she’s played it comparatively safe in less ambitious projects under less-than-stellar directors: The Cell (2000, Tarsem) The Wedding Planner (2001, Adam Shankman) Angel Eyes (2001, Luis Mandoki) and Enough (2002, Michael Apted).

Wayne Wang, who oscillates unpredictably between Hollywood assignments (Anywhere But Here) and indie fare (Smoke, The Center of the World), is the first ‘proper’ director Lopez has worked with since Soderbergh, and it’s a sign of her growing confidence that her next two projects are for Kevin Smith (Jersey Girl, November) and Lasse Hallstrom – An Unfinished Life, co-starring Robert Redford, may be ready in time for an Academy-qualifying run before the end of the year.

Don’t be surprised if Lopez finally translates that long-dormant Oscar speculation into reality, sooner rather than later – whatever one makes of her off-screen reputation, or the quality of her movie choices, she’s never less than 100 per cent professional and accomplished on camera. And the experience of making Maid in Manhattan will almost certainly give a major lift to her already polished acting skills. Look at Ryan Philippe – nothing special until Gosford Park, which for an ambitious young actor must have seemed like the world’s greatest hands-on acting masterclass, with daily lessons from the likes of Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Eileen Atkins, Stephen Fry, Richard E Grant, Alan Bates, Emily Watson, Kristin Scott-Thomas and company, under the eye of Robert Altman. The consequence: Igby Goes Down, in which Philippe’s pitch-perfect performance is arguably one of 2002’s best.

Even the supremely confident Lopez must have gulped a little when she found herself on set with Wang, Fiennes, Bob Hoskins and Natasha Richardson. But while Hoskins (delightfully sotto voce as the head butler) and Richardson (spot-on as a vacuous Sloaney snob) make the most of their supporting roles – and Chris Eigeman (as Marisa’s boss) even shows flashes of his terrific work for Whit Stillman – Lopez more than holds her own. She certainly looks more comfortable than Fiennes, who doesn’t convince as (a) American, (b) Republican or (c) Marisa’s boyfriend. Between the leads one doesn’t detect very much of what people generally call ‘chemistry’, though they really mean biology.

In fact, it’s physics which is the real engine of this genre – the creation and steady release of energy, thus enabling the viewer to engage in a romantic suspension of disbelief. And this depends, most of all, on the script. Romantic comedies don’t even have to be especially plausible – sometimes (Serendipity) the multiplying implausibilities become all part of the fun. Maid In Manhattan, however, never musters enough of that crucial romantic energy to sustain us through the countless naggingly unlikely developments that mark each stage in Marisa and Chris’s relationship. The problems start with their painfully convoluted first meeting – involving a ‘borrowed’ Dolce+Gabbana dress, a restive Weimaraner, and the fact that Marisa’s gifted son Ty (Tyler Posey Garcia) is such an avid fan of 1970s politics that his mother gives him a present of the Nixon tapes. And things don’t get any better later on, with a crucial plot point depending on the idea that the hyper-efficient Marisa would go to work oblivious of the fact that she was wearing a fabulously expensive diamond piece of jewellery around her neck.

A more serious problem, however, is Maid in Manhattan‘s rather insultingly glib treatment of the more serious issues it rather half-heartedly “raises.” Given Wang’s career, the ‘different worlds’ aspects of Chris and Marisa’s relationship seem promisingly refreshing: he a right-wing WASP, she a socially-conscious Latina burning with anger over social matters. But scriptwriter Kevin Wade (working from a story by Edmond Dantes) either cannot or will not go very far into this area: there are a couple of inconsequential minor arguments between the lovebirds, and at the end (in a limp and lazy ‘happy ever after’ montage of magazine covers) we see Chris’s face on the front of Newsweek alongside the strapline ‘Politics and the Working Class.’ Is this supposed to be some kind of joke?

3rd March, 2003
(seen same day, Warner Village, Newcastle)

by Neil Young