“Maid in Manhattan”

Jennifer Lopez has star power, genuine talent and considerable assets, but she's wasted yet again in a grossly predictable romantic comedy.

Topics: Jennifer Lopez, Movies,

"Maid in Manhattan"

Jennifer Lopez may be the most overexposed and underused actress in Hollywood today: Overexposed because you can’t pick up a gossip magazine or flip on the television without picking up some useless bit of gossip about her personal life or her wardrobe; and underused because no director except Steven Soderbergh has found the right way to tap her appeal, which is certainly genuine. For all her exceptional beauty, Lopez easily comes off as a real person onscreen, mixing vulnerability and confident self-awareness in all the right proportions.

But then, the world is full of young actresses who could do good work in the right light comedy — if only there were directors capable of making a good light comedy these days. With “Maid in Manhattan,” Wayne Wang is just the latest in a long line of contemporary filmmakers who have proved they’re not up to the task. You can predict almost every turn in “Maid in Manhattan,” although that’s not the problem with it. It just never takes wing. There are a few casual, funny lines in Kevin Wade’s script, but they’re buried under too many sodden ones. Everything about it, except the valiantly lifelike Lopez, feels stiff and robotic and mindlessly crowd-pleasing, as if it were a comedy made by a committee instead of a human being.

It should have been easy to make “Maid in Manhattan” work, particularly considering that rags-to-riches Cinderella stories are so universally compelling. Lopez plays Marisa Ventura, a chambermaid at a fancy New York hotel. She’s also a single mother raising a precocious young son, Ty (Tyler Garcia Posey), who seems to have a nose for politics even at the tender age of 10. (He delivers, and flubs, a speech on Richard Nixon at his school, and takes more interest in books about Henry Kissinger than in Gameboys.)

Hanging around the hotel while his mother goes about the business of changing sheets and putting mints on pillows, Ty befriends the allegedly handsome and affable Christopher Marshall (Ralph Fiennes), an aspiring senator who is also a highly eligible bachelor. Somehow, Marisa and Ty end up going for a jaunt in Central Park with Christopher; Marisa happens to be wearing a white wool Dolce & Gabbana suit borrowed on the sly from spoiled-and-snooty hotel guest Caroline Lane (a way overdone Natasha Richardson), so Christopher has no idea what class stratum she really belongs to. Still, he falls in love with Marisa for herself — although that suit, molded cunningly around her considerable assets, probably doesn’t hurt.

There are the usual obstacles (it turns out that Caroline is after Christopher too) and the typical second bananas (Stanley Tucci is Christopher’s straitlaced handler; Marrissa Patrone is Marisa’s friend, a fellow maid who’s obsessed with penis size, a gag that’s stupefyingly unfunny even the first time she pulls it). There’s also a subplot about Marisa’s desire to advance in the workplace and become a manager — a goal that’s of course threatened by her dalliance with one of the hotel’s guests (not to mention that Central Park jaunt in the borrowed designer gear, an offense that’s marginally defensible in the universe of romantic comedies but would be a complete no-no in real life).

“Maid in Manhattan” is bounteous with good intentions. There’s much made of the fact that Christopher and Marisa come from “different worlds,” although only once does Marisa speak of Christopher as white, privileged and fortunate. To his credit, Wang realizes clearly that color and social class themselves aren’t the crucial issues that divide Marisa and Christopher. The bigger problem is that they have such disparate ways of looking at the world, partly, of course, because of where they came from but also simply because of who they are. And Christopher is a Republican, no less — although he’s not a real Republican, but the sort who might actually set foot in a housing project to find out how people live there, instead of just to have his picture taken.

But Marisa and Christopher have much bigger problems than disparate lifestyles. To put it bluntly: Marisa is hot; Christopher is about as erotic as a wet woolen sock. What on earth was Wang thinking, casting Fiennes as a romantic-comedy lead? I’m not a fan of stiff-upper-lip acting as a rule, which makes it doubly hard for me to respond to Fiennes’ stiff-no-lip performances. (For my money, his brother Joseph is the real actor in the family.) But in “Maid in Manhattan,” Fiennes’ clammy gormlessness comes off as something he just can’t help: He’s all wrong for the role and the movie, and it’s painful to see him working so honorably to attempt something he’s so ill-suited for.

And unfortunately, Lopez’s feather-light charm only heightens the contrast. For one thing, she’s fetching even in her dowdy maid’s uniform. But there’s more to Lopez than bodacious good looks. It doesn’t matter that in reality she’s a huge celebrity. Lopez’s charm as an actress is exactly the opposite of star quality. What’s remarkable about her is the persistence of her dewy, girl-on-the-street hopefulness. There are beautiful young women who look as if they believe the world is going to be handed to them, and those who have no idea what’s in store but wonder if maybe it will be something good. In this movie, as in Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight,” Lopez comes off as the latter.

But Wang doesn’t know quite what to do with her. Her scenes with Fiennes are serviceable but feel vaguely off, as if she too were wondering what on earth he’s doing in this movie. She fares better in her moments with Bob Hoskins, who’s wonderful (as usual) in a too-small supporting role as a hotel butler. But even though she’s completely right for her role here, she never seems quite at home in it. She’s a real-live girl trapped in a movie treatment — when all she really needs is a movie.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>