"You look like someone who knows the difference between taupe and caramel."—Caroline Lane (Natasha Richardson) to Marisa Ventura (Jennifer Lopez)
The rule at the ritzy Beresford Hotel is that a maid should "strive to be invisible." This is usually not a problem for Marisa Ventura (Jennifer Lopez), who toils to make life easier for the wealthy white people who inhabit the hotel's innumerable suites. But one day, Marisa decides to try on an outfit belonging to the "goddess" in the Park Suite (Natasha Richardson)—and is promptly mistaken for someone that counts in the world. And so begins a tale of romance between the lowest of the low and a rich politician (Ralph Fiennes) who must learn to love this diamond in the rough as she truly is.
To give you a sense right up front of what kind of movie we are dealing with when we talk about Maid in Manhattan, the only extra that Columbia TriStar includes on this DVD release (apart from a trailer) is a link to a website offering "a fascinating behind the scenes shopping experience." In other words, the film has all the artistic aspirations of a Pokémon episode for bored middle-class white women: watch this movie to get ideas for your next fashion purchases. In fact, characters in the movie gush over designer names with almost fetishistic glee.
For a moment, it looks like Maid in Manhattan might actually be about something more than a crassly capitalistic spin on Cinderella (forgetting briefly that Pretty Woman and others have not already mined that territory). The opening song, Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" suggests the crossing of cultural boundaries. Given director Wayne Wang's earlier, more socially conscious films (Chan Is Missing, Eat a Bowl of Tea), we suspect the film might offer a critique of race and class. For instance, Marisa's son Ty (Tyler Posey) stumbles over a moment in a school speech where he must address Richard Nixon's Asian policies. And consider that quote above, where a wealthy and flighty socialite suggests (in a reference to the colors of pantyhose) that Marisa should be aware of the ethnic division between them. But these things all fall away by Act Two, when the inevitable fairy tale romance starts rolling.
And lest the film offend anyone by taking sides or expressing any sort of personality, Kevin Wade's script (based on a story by John Hughes, credited here as "Edmond Dantes," the Count of Monte Cristo) manages to whitewash the story to the point of blandness. To please the liberals in the audience, Marisa gets to make a few passing comments about being from the projects and how her new white conservative boyfriend should meet some real street people instead of hosting political fundraisers. But in order to balance the political scales, young Ty is a budding Republican with a fascination for Nixon and bland '70s pop. And the film tries to hard to argue that success is measured by one's ability to rise to the standards of rich WASPs (in one scene, a friend says to Marisa, "Don't be such a Catholic") that I started gritting my teeth in the hopes that this would all turn out to be some sort of satire. Unfortunately, the film is completely sincere every step of the way.
Director Wang even finds it hard to find anything colorful in his supporting cast. Stanley Tucci and Bob Hoskins are always a welcome sight, and I kept hoping to see them light up the otherwise predictable story. But neither is given anything to do of any consequence. Hoskins' underdeveloped butler character (so dull that I forgot his name by the time the film was over) is the biggest waste of that fine actor's talent since Hook.
Worse still, while Lopez turns in a surprisingly understated performance in a relatively generic role (after all, how hard is it to play Cinderella?), Ralph Fiennes, usually a respectable actor, is given nothing to hang a character on with Senate candidate Chris Marshall. He seems to have taken his acting cues from the prince in Disney's Cinderella, coming across more as an animation cel than a romantic lead. As a result, the chemistry so crucial to making a love story like this work, even on a superficial level, generates as much heat as an Easy Bake Oven.
I suppose I should say something nice at this point. Okay, here it is: Columbia TriStar includes both a pan and scan and a widescreen print of the film on the same disc. But, I suppose to save space, there are no extras apart from trailers. Oh wait, that was not so nice after all.
I'll try again: Maid in Manhattan is less crass in its justification of WASP culture and capitalist rhetoric than Pretty Woman. Wayne Wang offers glimpses of what might have been a much richer and more intelligently written film, and now that he has hit the Hollywood mainstream, he might get a chance to make such a film for the sort of wide audience that flocked to see this tepid Cinderella remix in theaters. And Jennifer Lopez has proven that she can act, when she wants to (and gets a decent script and director). If "Cinderella" is a story about what might yet be, if we wish hard enough, then Maid in Manhattan is a story of what might have been, if everyone involved had wished a little harder and not just showed up for a paycheck.
The court finds this film guilty of pandering to the lowest common denominator and wasting the potential of both its cast and crew. All involved are sentenced to work their way back up from the housekeeping staff.
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