Maid in Manhattan (December 9/02)
Maybe it's just me, but when I hear the words "romantic comedy," the name Ralph Fiennes doesn't immediately spring to mind. Best known for his intense portraits of disturbed people (much like this fall's Red Dragon and the upcoming Cronenberg flick Spider), Fiennes rarely ventures into the world of normalcy. In Maid in Manhattan, he's playing about as straight-laced a character as they come - and though he is good in the role, he never seems entirely comfortable. Still, the movie is diverting enough due to some great supporting performances and a breezy storyline.
Jennifer Lopez stars as Marisa, a hard-working single mother who's employed as a chambermaid at a posh New York City hotel. One day, while cleaning the suite of a rich Brit named Caroline (Natasha Richardson), Marisa's friend encourages her to try on an expensive outfit. Coincidentally, her son barges into the room at that moment accompanied by a rich Senatorial candidate named Christopher (Fiennes). Marisa pretends she's Caroline, and soon she's out for a walk with Christopher and his dog. The two fall in love fairly quickly, but Marisa knows that Christopher is bound to find out the truth sooner or later.
Maid in Manhattan comes about a year after Kate and Leopold, a romantic comedy that managed to transcend the genre. That movie had everything going for it - an engaging storyline, enjoyably quirky supporting characters, and two leads that oozed chemistry. Maid in Manhattan, which is entertaining most of the time, never makes it up to that level mostly because of an awkwardly paced opening half-hour that introduces far more characters than necessary. This is, at its core, a love story and the inclusion of so many characters winds up distracting us from that aspect of the film - when all we really want is to see Marisa and Christopher fall in love.
Having said that, it's two supporting characters that prove to be the highlight of the movie. As Christopher's exasperated aide, Stanley Tucci delivers yet another scene stealing performance - to the point where it's easy enough to wish the film had been about his character falling in love with J. Lo. Even better is Bob Hoskins as Lionel, the head butler in the hotel. Towards the end of the film, he gives a speech to Marisa about the dignity involved in serving people for a living, and Hoskins' performance is far better than the film deserves.
It should come as no surprise that there is a stretch towards the end where Marisa's secret is found out, and everyone is mad at her. But at least the filmmakers presumably realized how cliched that sort of a "twist" has come to be, and let all the major characters discover Marisa's deception at the same time (imagine how excruciating it would've been had the plethora of characters found out individually). And the film does recover nicely with a suitably uplifting conclusion, so Maid in Manhattan should fit the bill for those craving a predictable romance.