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MAID IN MANHATTAN

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There’s always an audience out there–mostly female, of course–for yet another version of the Cinderella story; the astronomical success of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is certainly proof of that. So perhaps this latest Jennifer Lopez vehicle will attract a following. “Maid in Manhattan”–an overly cutesy title, but probably an improvement on the original one, “The Chambermaid,” which would have made many prospective viewers think that the picture was a French period piece–is pretty much a clone of “Pretty Woman.” But perhaps because Julia Roberts wasn’t available (she was actually sought for an early version of the script, but declined) and Lopez substituted as the lower-class girl who snares a wealthy, powerful guy, the central character couldn’t remain a prostitute–could J. Lo ever have been convincing in so sluttish a guise?–and instead has been transformed into a hardworking single mom with a precocious son. (This husband-less state would, for some reason, appear to be a far more plausible role for her, as least insofar as the public is concerned–I wonder why.)

Lopez plays Marisa Ventura, a maid at the posh Beresford Hotel in New York City, an establishment that caters to the whims of only the finest clientele. Marisa, whose deepest relationship is to her bright, adorable ten-year old son Ty (Tyler Garcia Posey), is anxious to move into a management position after years in the trenches, as it were–a goal encouraged by her closest pal on the staff, wisecracking Stephanie (Marissa Matrone), who actually submits her name when a position opens up. Surprisingly enough in a film of this sort, where bosses are generally depicted as unalterably opposed to the ambitions of the lowly, Marisa’s aspirations are greeted favorably by the hotel’s upper echelons, including the manager (Chris Eigeman), his assistant (Frances Conroy, from “Six Feet Under”), and the prim, proper floor butler Lionel Bloch (Bob Hoskins). Before the application can proceed, however, disaster strikes when Stephanie persuades Marisa to try on some of the clothes of a guest, Catherine Lane (Natasha Richardson), a preening socialite. She’s met in those borrowed duds by another resident, State Assemblyman Chris Marshall (Ralph Fiennes), a playboy type from an old political family who’s plotting a run for senator under the watchful gaze of Jerry Siegel (Stanley Tucci), his perpetually nervous campaign manager; and before long Chris, thinking her Catherine (a mistake she doesn’t correct), has fallen for her–something of which Ty much approves. When the imposture is revealed by a jealous Catherine, however, Marisa loses her job altogether. Will Chris ever be able to forgive her deception? Can the pair overcome the fact that, as one character actually remarks in the course of the proceedings, they “come from two different worlds”? Is Ralph Fiennes English?

It goes without saying that “Maid in Manhattan” is as flimsy and predictable as they come; but it’s still a reasonably tolerable bit of formulaic fluff, thanks to several factors. One is the luscious production design, which makes the Big Apple look like a million bucks; the walk through Central Park that first brings together Marisa, Chris and Ty is visually a treat (though the conversation, as is the norm in Krevin Wade’s script, is all too pedestrian). Another is Wayne Wang’s direction, which maintains some dignity even in the clumsier comic bits (e.g., a luncheon involving Chris and Caroline, at which Marisa must serve without being recognized) and the potentially maudlin mother-son ones. He’s aided by skilled turns from some of his supporting cast. Matrone tries much too hard to be Thelma Ritter, but Hoskins could almost be channeling the John Gielgud of “Arthur” with his still-upper lip demeanor and precise diction, though Lionel proves to be a far less cynical, more bemused and friendly character, while Tucci has the frazzled underling persona down pat; Eigeman and Conroy, by contrast, are nicely restrained. Best of all is Posey; “precocious” child characters are almost always intolerable, but Posey makes Ty a genuinely charming kid, even toward the close, when he has to serve as the mechanism of bringing Chris and his mother together again. He’s a real find.

The leads, unhappily, aren’t in the same class. Lopez is just a trifle too snarly as Marisa, and can’t quite summon the exuberance a role like this demands. Fiennes, on the other hand, seems totally lost; he certainly looks fine in the expensive duds he wears and has a gangly, attractive presence, but his broad smile looks more like an embarrassed grimace, as though he hadn’t been let in on an important joke. Richardson, meanwhile, comes on too strong. One appreciates this fine actress’ willingness to try new things with farcical parts in pictures like this one and “Waking Up in Reno,” but perhaps she should return to the more serious material she does best. As Catherine’s rude, snooty friend, Amy Sedaris lacks subtlety, too.

Ultimately a romantic comedy like “Maid in Manhattan” can’t survive the lack of strong chemistry between the leads and uninspired writing, skilled direction and some expert supporting turns notwithstanding. The picture has a professional sheen, but it never rises much above the ordinary. For some viewers, though, its good-natured desire to please may be sufficient.

THE MAN FROM ELYSIAN FIELDS

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In Greco-Roman mythology, the Elysian Fields are the abode of the blessed spirits in the afterlife–a locale to be distinguished from the less appetizing Hades. As such it signifies bliss. Unfortunately George Hickenlooper’s film is unlikely to confer any sort of rapture on its viewers. “The Man from Elysian Fields” is a glossy soap opera that tries to elevate a conventional story about the destructive effects of adultery by conjoining it with a more high-toned tale of love, sex, creativity and betrayal among the well-to-do literati. Half of it is composed of snappy patter and pseudo-sophisticated cultural observations, while the remainder showcases situations and dialogue that would be more at home on a daytime television serial. The result is like a misguided recreation of a florid 1950s melodrama, and it has the misfortune to appear roughly simultaneously with Todd Haynes’ brilliant “Far from Heaven,” which pulls off that trick with a style and depth that Hickenlooper’s effort sorely lacks.

“Elysian Fields” centers on a unsuccessful novelist named Byron Tiller (Andy Garcia), a clever wordsmith whose first book tanked and whose second is turned down by the publisher, putting his family–supportive wife Dena (Julianna Magulies) and adorable son Nathaniel–into financial jeopardy. Desperate for cash after being refused a loan by Dena’s wealthy father (Richard Bradford, notable mostly for the crevices that have appeared between his teeth), Byron reluctantly accepts an offer from Luther Fox (Mick Jagger), a suave, snooty sort with an office down the hall from his (why the unemployed Bryan should have an office at all is never explained) to take a place on the roster of handsome male escorts associated with his Elysian Fields Agency. The job brings Bryan into contact with the lovely Andrea (Olivia Williams), the young wife of wealthy, celebrated writer Tobias Alcott (James Coburn), an aging lion who looks tolerantly on his spouse’s need for the companionship he can no longer provide. Before long, however, Bryan has become Tobias’ collaborator in the refashioning of what will be the great man’s final manuscript, under a promise of joint authorship; and his increasingly close relationship with Andrea ultimately breaks up his marriage. Predictable twists occur, until we find a chastened Byron reading from his own new novel, a chronicle of his own sad marital lapses.

Almost nothing in the picture rings true. The Tiller family ambience is bad enough: there’s the dad who’s always ready with a wisecrack that proves how intelligent he is, the doting wife, the tousled-haired tyke, the arrogant bastard of a father-in-law–it’s all too obvious for words. But as sappy as that is, the segue to the “escort service” side of things is even worse; what might have been a gender-bending take on “Belle de Jour” is instead treated as a serious dose of sap. Jagger gets by on his snide charm even though much of his narration is gruesomely precious and a sidebar in which this world-weary veteran seeks a real relationship with his sole surviving client (Anjelica Huston) reeks of the crudest scriptwriting symmetry. But it’s in the Williams-Coburn material that matters truly go awry. The “literary” atmosphere of barbed wit, elegant dissipation and simmering untrustworthiness is all surface and no content, and one sequence–in which Bryan persuades Alcott to change the Roman Empire backdrop of his novel about slaves to the contemporary world of migrant laborers (the subject of his own rejected manuscript)–is positively ludicrous. Williams is bland as the distaff part of the triangle, and while Coburn puts his actual physical infirmity to good use (just the sight of his arthritic hands is painful), his performance is too clearly a curtain-call turn based on his patented gruffness and toothy smile (rather than the genuinely frightening character work he did in “Affliction”). Garcia, meanwhile, gets the easygoing ineffectuality of Tiller right, but when the poor fellow turns moody and depressed about where his life has gone, he becomes a glum bore. Of course, the best actor in the world couldn’t have pulled off Garcia’s final speech–in which Bryan recites the last words of his confessional novel to a supposedly rapt audience. The book is supposed to be wildly successful, but the prose is awful, and while the notion that it could attract readers isn’t innately implausible (many wretchedly-written novels are popular nowadays), wanting us to take it seriously in this context is a terrible lapse in Hickenlooper’s judgment.

There’s one other slip in the script that might be noted. Late in the picture, when Tiller reminds Fox that he’d once told his prospective employee that most of his other staff members were married, Luther replies, “I didn’t say ‘happily’ married. As a writer you should watch your adjectives.” “Happily,” of course, is an adverb, not an adjective. In most movies such a blunder could be forgiven, but in one that’s all about wordplay, it’s clear evidence of failure.