MAID IN MANHATTAN
directed by Wayne Wang opens Dec. 13 at Metro, Pacific Place, Factoria, and others
Edmond Dantes, the hero of The Count of Monte Cristo, is the nom de plume employed by John Hughes for movies (like Beethoven) that are even more bereft of ambition than his usual stale adman's tripe. Maid in Manhattan is such a movie. A Hughes story adapted by screenwriter Kevin Wade, it's about personal and professional ambition, but no artistic ambition went into it. Wade has turned Hughes' material into a pale, umpteenth-generation Xerox copy of Wade's own 1988 Working Girl, with a little Pretty Woman in the extruded mix.
Jennifer Lopez takes the Melanie Griffith part: Instead of a plucky secretary riding the Staten Island Ferry to a haughty Wall Street firm, we have a plucky maid commuting from the Bronx to a haughty Park Avenue hotel. As the unattainably rich hunk of her dreams, Ralph Fiennes, playing a kindly, liberal Republican senator (kindly, liberal WHAT?), fails to fill Harrison Ford's leading-man shoes—he flops around in them like a wee child unacquainted with the heady effects of testosterone. In the role of plucky, cutely homely, "You go, girl!"-sayin' best friend, Marissa Matrone is good enough to remind us of Joan Cusack—and why Cusack's adorably amusing performance stomps hers flat.
As the Cinderella heroine's evil, rich rival—a beauty aging swiftly into a hag—we get Natasha Richardson in place of Sigourney Weaver. Wade supplied Weaver great lines to convey her arrogant desperation in courting Ford: "We're in the same city now. I've indicated I'm receptive to an offer. I've cleared the month of June. And I am, after all, me." He has less respect for Richardson's villainess character, and gives her worse lines: When she asks Fiennes out for their second dinner date and he says, "A second time would be torture," Richardson says, wide-eyed, "Drinks, then?" It's funny but not as funny as Working Girl, because comedy is rooted in character, and there aren't really any characters in Maid in Manhattan, only types.
BUT THEN THERE'S J.Lo. Man, is she better than Melanie Griffith used to be. All the star quality that fled Madonna's body the instant she stepped out of videos and into movies seems to have settled on Lopez like a radiant afflatus. That knowing half-smile! The feminine grit, the ebullient sense of fun, the sympathetic glance that can breathe life into scenes that, on the page, deserve to die! She's so winning, we even tolerate the heroine's generically precocious son (Tyler Posey), who ickily nudges her courtship with Fiennes. She can take a cardboard character nobody could believe and make us believe: Baby got back (or, as this script vulgarly puts it, "fantastic assets") and back story.
The authenticity she projects may have a bit to do with her actual background. She really started out as a secretary commuting to New York from the Bronx—her old boss showed up to watch this film being shot, she greeted him, and I'll bet he was as fond of her as her boss in the movie, Bob Hoskins as head butler. She could probably say the words, "Keep it real," and actually keep it real.
Triumph over phoniness comes in handy this time around. Lopez's best friend talks her into trying on hotel guest Natasha Richardson's $5,000 outfit, which the maid was supposed to get dry cleaned; Fiennes glimpses her in it and is smitten, mistaking her for a member of the $5,000-outfit class, and presto: The maid is living la Dolce & Gabbana vita on his allegedly desirable arm. This is the Pretty Woman part, but it quite lacks the oomph of that film's makeover story. And J.Lo's outfit is matronly, not sensational, like Julia Roberts'. I know, she's playing a matron, but her va-va-voom-less look accentuates Fiennes' essential sexlessness. He's supposed to be thunderstruck at the sight of her, but he just comes off like smiling Styrofoam. Ah, well—who cares about the schmuck in the penguin suit in a date movie? It's the bride-to-be that counts.
Events bump along to a foreordained finale, while Alan Silvestri's score soaks every scene in his gloopiest music since Serendipity. Silvestri's fingers should be sewn together so he never composes again. Fiennes should get a sexuality implant, and Richardson a classier vehicle for her exceptional skill.
Cinematic culture is sunk, and we're like survivors diving into the shipwreck for leftovers to stave off starvation. Conditioned by fast-food restaurants to gobble up formulaic garbage and clamor for more, we are about to make Maid in Manhattan a big, fat hit. It's a cannily preprocessed date movie with no rivals at the multiplex, and given the brain-and-heart-dead state of the big-studio romantic comedy art, Maid in Manhattan looks like a dang masterpiece.