Maid in Manhattan (PG-13)
Why can't American directors make a simple, zippy romantic comedy any more? We have plenty of innovative indie types like P.T. Anderson who give us offbeat, if not bizarre, romantic treatments (see: Punch-Drunk Love). But where is the George Cukor of the 21st century, who produces a 90-minute lark with crisp timing, subtle acting and dashing lead actors?
Director Wayne Wang appeared to be heading toward a respectable career with his earlier films Chan is Missing and Smoke. Then came Wang's flirtation with big studio projects, The Joy Luck Club, and now comes Maid in Manhattan, a sweet Cinderella story turned into a lazy piece of hog slop, sugar-coated and caramelized to make it go down easy.
This so-called film makes Sleepless in Seattle look like a cinematic masterpiece.
Jennifer Lopez is utterly wasted as Marisa Ventura, a New York City chambermaid with a precocious 10-year-old son, Ty (Tyler Garcia Posey), a good head on her shoulders, and an adequate measure of drive and ambition. One day Marisa and her sister maid (Marissa Matrone) are caught playing dress-up with the designer wardrobe of ritzy hotel guest Caroline Lane (Natasha Richardson), and Marisa is mistaken for a woman of means.
The guy who catches her is debonair bachelor politician Christopher Marshall (Ralph Fiennes), befriended by Ty on the hotel elevator. The threesome enjoy a short, picturesque romp in Central Park, are chased and photographed by paparazzi and, natch, Cinderella and the Prince fall in love. Soon follows the glass slipper scene -- a swank fund-raiser by New York's elite for New York's po' folks -- and the ugly revelation of Marisa's true identity.
Will they live happily ever after? I bet you can guess. Of course you can, but that's not the point. It's OK for romantic comedies to be predictable. It is not, however, OK for them to be stodgy, slow-witted, smarmy and written to the intelligence factor of the average 8-year-old.
Lopez is a star with radiant screen presence, fun worldliness and wide-eyed playfulness, who has turned in two terrific film performances (Selena and Out of Sight) in her relatively short career. Would someone please give this woman a decent script? She's got the looks and the talent, but her recent roles have been either overwrought (Enough) or, in the case of Maid in Manhattan, half-baked.
And who in their right mind would cast pasty, sweaty Ralph Fiennes in the Cary Grant/Clark Gable role? He's too pale and earnest. It hurts to watch him slobbering over Lopez, looking like a well-meaning British uncle turned loose on the streets of New York, dazed and confused by all the noise and life around him. He works best in a book-lined study, in tweeds, with pithy lines and torrents of angst. Seeing him in Maid in Manhattan is like, well, seeing Laurence Olivier play Ralph Cramden.
Maid in Manhattan is, of course, this week's No. 1 box office draw, destined to make a mint because it's designed to go down easy -- presumably the essential quality the American public demands in its weekend entertainment.
Just be sure to take along the Pepto-Bismol.
-- Kathryn Eastburn