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Maid in Manhattan

(2002) ** Pg-13
105 min. Columbia. Director: Wayne Wang. Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Stanley Tucci, Tyler Posey (II).

A feel-good movie which elevates a servile woman to the level of the beautiful people, where she finds romance with the great man she serves? Is this really 2002? At least Julia Roberts's gentry-plebeian romance in Notting Hill put the woman on top. Of course, Jennifer Lopez's star turn in Maid in Manhattan is also only a calculatedly close stone's throw from Roberts's Pretty Woman, the protoypical hit romantic comedy which, in turn, took its cues from Cinderella. Are these films, invariably written and directed by men, veiled misogynist tracts perpetuating the myth in which socially "unworthy" women gaze awe-inspired at idealized men? Well, with Maid in Manhattan screenwriter Kevin Wade--working from a story by John Hughes--and director Wayne Wang--yes, the once-proud independent director--carefully sketch J-Lo as a capable, nay, formidable woman in her own right, as far as it serves them. But in the end, her fate rests in the the thumbs-up-thumbs-down judgement of the handsome lord overseeing the bread and circuses.

But, you ask, are we not entertained? Admittedly, Maid in Manhattan serves up pleasant-enough comfort food with a dash of zesty New York flavor. Like every other coastal romantic comedy, Wang's film begins with the camera zipping over the water and rising to the city skyline. More non-surprises include an irresistably cute kid (Tyler Posey--no relation to Parker), the obligatory department-store fashion dress-up scene, and a series of ridiculous contrivances.

Lopez plays Marisa Ventura, a determined single mother getting by as a maid in a ritzy hotel. The elite clientele promptly includes a senatorial candidate played by smilin' Ralph Fiennes, while--behind-the-scenes--kindly butler Bob Hoskins keeps things humming along. When, through a rather obvious farcical contrivance, Lopez and Fiennes meet, you don't need a light meter to sense cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub working overtime to make the room glow favorably on the lovers.

What follows feels even more gratingly familiar, with a full crew of teamsters working overtime to pull audience heartstrings (when the romance doesn't get you, the doe-eyed, fatherless child will). The forced "go-girl" banter is especially egregious, snapping the audience back to crushing unreality every time the film threatens to find a naturalistic groove. Lines like "Tonight the maid is a lie and this, this is who you really are" and a hard-to-swallow eleventh hour speech by a starchily noble Hoskins don't help. Cue the fanciful strings and the dash to a happy ending.

The film does benefit, however, from warm, likeable leading performances by Lopez and Fiennes, as well as a snappy-funny one by Stanley Tucci as Fiennes's political handler. Wade musters some chuckles from dialogue and situations that pad the walls of the point-A to point-Z romance. At one point, a Harry Winston clerk forces Posey's Ty to memorize what will happen to him if the necklace he's escorting disappears. Conjuring up a far more interesting movie, the chipper lad replies, "I'll be put up for adoption while my mom rots in prison."

Maid In Manhattan panders to the worst in us while purporting to celebrate the best, its condescending script spelling out each point. But the film is also critic-proof, smile-worthy, smooth entertainment. It's up to you whether this fruitcake from your Hollywood neighbors gets eaten or tossed out in the trash.

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