Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky wonders if Hollywood just keeps hot, working-class Latinas around on a shelf, waiting to pair them up with vapid, mildly attractive white guys for comic effect.
Alex: They're going to hate me, aren't they?
Dapper, mediocre white guy Alex Whitman (Matthew Perry, Friends) is a corporate drone on the rise. He engages in the standard American cultural imperialism. He learns just enough Japanese for a business deal. He is first seen carrying a huge fish, caught and embalmed for display on a wall. The boss catches him hugging another guy in the closet after they wrangle a great business deal. Ha ha, gay joke. This is supposed to tell us that Alex is a new man, secure enough in his own power and sexual potency to joke like this. He is so white that his last name is Whitman. Get it? Try adding an "e" in the middle, if this one is still a stumper.
Actually, if you were stumped by that joke, then Fools Rush In is probably the movie for you. Everything is painted with the largest possible brush, one more suitable for murals than detail work. This is standard romantic comedy fare: stuffy man meets earthy woman, and by the end of 100 minutes we learn that opposites really can attract.
Isabel (Salma Hayek, Frida) is a lovely, earthy Latina. We first see her drifting lazily in the water, while acoustic guitar plays in the background. So she is ethnic. She is volatile, nervous, about to break up with her cop boyfriend. She and Alex meet cute in a Tex-Mex restaurant in Las Vegas, which apparently passes for "south of the border" to Manhattanite Alex. After a few feisty words about "reading the signs" of their destiny, magic happens.
Or magic as defined by Hollywood. And that magic has to do with the late-'90s marketing synergy that I will dub "salsa fever." From popular music to romantic comedies, Latin culture was briefly the in thing before settling into just another marketing niche for Hollywood to cash in on. Case in point: this double feature of 1997's Fools Rush In and 2002's Maid in Manhattan.
I have already commented on the Jennifer Lopez feature in some detail (see the link in the sidebar). The class issues in this Cinderella knockoff, as undercooked as they may be, at least make this the superior film. And Ralph Fiennes may be out of place in a romcom (he showed more romantic devotion in the moody and fatalistic The Constant Gardener), but at least he adds a touch of gravity to the fluff. Matthew Perry is all fluff, a moussed marshmallow of an actor. That is great for an ensemble piece, where other performers can anchor the story. But as a romantic lead, he never really convinces as a fool for love.
By contrast, Maid in Manhattan has a far more interesting script, a stronger ensemble (Bob Hoskins, Stanley Tucci, and so on), and more brains in any one scene than the entire length of Fools Rush In, even if most of those brains are largely wasted by the end. My assessment of Wayne Wang's film rose substantially against the blandness of Andy Tennant's effort. Hell, I'll admit I actually enjoyed it—but only in comparison to the romance-free Fools Rush In, which felt as cuddly as a wire chicken mommy.
Take a look at the scene where Isabel tells Alex that she is pregnant after their one night stand three months prior. His reactions are all superficial, would-be comic mugging and not real shock. Hayek appears to struggle with an impulse to push the scene somewhere darker (she was never much of an actress, but she is still way better than he is here), but pulls back. "I don't know exactly what to do," Alex confesses. How about act like you are thinking about what to do?
The first act of the film sets up the "clueless white guy meets wacky ethnic girlfriend's family" screwball comedy premise. The ethnic clichés are paraded out, although the film seems to avoid ethnic jokes (maybe in order not to offend anyone), and the family is conspicuously "My Big Fat Mexican Wedding," with lots of rural Catholic decor and "wild spirit," as the mother dubs it. The "working-class girl meets rich guy" stuff serves as merely a plot device: will Alex move them back to New York, or will Isabel get to stay in Vegas with her family?
There are supposed to be conflicts here over religion, East (New York) versus West (Mexico, by way of Las Vegas), and so forth. I say "supposed," because every conflict lasts just long enough for the couple to remember they are having a baby—and the audience is supposed to all go "awww." You know they will have a fight and separate late in Act 2. Then love and fate will find a way. And they reunite in a rainstorm just in time for the baby's birth. Awww.
I suppose any movie that is so annoying that it makes the other lame romantic comedy it is paired with go up almost 10 points on a second viewing should be considered remarkable on its own merits. But that certainly should not be considered an endorsement for this double feature.
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