THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Maid in Manhattan is the kind of movie that will test the cynicism of its audience. Certain members will see it as yet another ripoff of the Pygmalion story, complete with all kinds of plot manipulations and moments of old-fashioned sap. Others, of the less cynical variety, will recognize it as a fairy tale and thereby warmly accept its familiarities and machinations. Seeing 150-200 movies a year has, on many occasions, made me feel cynical, but not this time. Maid in Manhattan never pretends to be anything more than what it is: a feel-good romantic comedy. During a movie season filled with dark, heavy, and sometimes brilliant Oscar-bait, it's kind of nice to get an unassuming little picture that only wants to put a smile on your face.

Jennifer Lopez plays Marisa Ventura, a maid at a posh New York City hotel. She is the single mother to a little boy, and she has aspirations of one day getting a management position at the hotel. While cleaning the room of a rich, snooty socialite named Caroline Lane (Natasha Richardson), Marisa comes across a $5,000 Dolce & Gabbana outfit. Goaded by friend and coworker Steph (Marisa Mattrone), she tries on the clothes. Just then, her son Ty (Tyler Garcia Posey) walks in the door with his new acquaintance Chris Marshall (Ralph Fiennes). Chris, a politician running for Senator, is staying in the hotel also; Ty met him while admiring the man's dog.

Chris sees Marisa in this outfit and is stunned by the woman's beauty. He naturally mistakes her for a hotel guest rather than an employee and invites her for a walk. Caught up in the moment, she agrees. Not surprisingly, they hit it off. Marisa tries to ward off a second date, but Chris searches her out time and again. Marisa, of course, fears what would happen if he found out she was "only" a maid. She also fears what might happen if her supervisor, Lionel (Bob Hoskins), found out she was trying on other peoples' clothes. Unless you have never seen a romantic comedy before, I will assume you can guess what happens next.

It has been said, mostly by critics, that you can often know everything there is to know about some movies before you even go in. That's because some of them follow a formula that is as old as storytelling itself. It has also been said (or at least demonstrated) by audiences that sometimes knowing exactly what will happen is the desired effect. In other words, would you really want to pay $7 to see a movie in which the callous politician dumps poor Marisa after discovering that she's a maid? Not bloody likely. (Well, some of you perhaps.) Maid in Manhattan is one of those "safe" movies that hit all the right feel-good notes and never tamper with the formula.

So why am I recommending something so...pre-fab? Easy - I need this kind of thing in my movie diet once in a while. In the past week, I have seen a holocaust drama, a documentary on America's gun problem, a story of racial and sexual intolerance, and a violent epic about the origins of New York City. All of them are great films. They are also very heavy. Walking into Maid in Manhattan, I wanted that feeling of knowing I was about to see something comforting, something "nice." It didn't matter if the movie was full of cliches and predictable scenes; as long as it was done well, I was ready to have some fun.

A hotel maid (Jennifer Lopez) falls in love with a hotshot politician (Ralph Fiennes) in Maid in Manhattan
And the film, thank goodness, is done well. Jennifer Lopez makes a satisfactory mea culpa for her putrid domestic abuse drama Enough by turning in a good performance as the sweet, feisty Marisa. Although the character has some self-doubt, Lopez always makes it clear that Marisa is possessed of much dignity. She may work in a service profession but, to paraphrase Lionel, she's nobody's servant. Lopez has good chemistry with Ralph Fiennes - not the same kind of fog-up-your-glasses chemistry she had with, say, George Clooney in Out of Sight, but a chemistry nonetheless. Fiennes is just about the last actor I would expect to see in a big Hollywood romantic comedy, but he's such a dynamic actor that he quickly seems right at home in the role. Chris is intelligent and very impressed by Marisa's forthright cut-to-the-chase attitude. Fiennes makes it totally clear why Chris would fall for her.

Maid in Manhattan has good supporting performances from Hoskins, Richardson, and Stanley Tucci as Chris's campaign manager. Director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) keeps the tone light, and Kevin Wade's screenplay even manages a few more substantive moments, such as the one in which Marisa's mother admits she never thinks her daughter will amount to much more. That's an effective scene. So is the last one, in which the politician and the maid declare their love for each other with a freeze-framed kiss. I knew it was coming, but that didn't make me any less glad when it did.

( out of four)

Maid in Manhattan is rated PG-13 for some language/sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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