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.