Film Reviews: Wednesday, December 12, 2002
Maid in Manhattan\r\nStarring Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes. Directed by Wayne Wang. Written by Kevin Wade. Rated PG-13.
Heartbreak Hotel

Romantic chemistry gets checked at the front desk in Maid in Manhattan.


More than any other type of movie, a romantic comedy depends heavily on its actors. Good direction and good writing are nice, but if a film doesn’t have chemistry between the two leads, it has nothing. Maid in Manhattan has Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes as its leads. This turns out to translate into nothing.

Lopez plays Marisa Ventura, a maid at a ritzy New York hotel who gets mistaken for a socialite by rising state politician Chris Marshall (Fiennes) when she tries on a designer dress belonging to a guest. She has to keep up the deception while they fall in love. What were the filmmakers thinking when they cast Fiennes? They were probably thinking of his performance in 1994’s Quiz Show, where he also played a charmingly diffident scion of wealth and privilege, and figured they could use that same quality in a romantic comedy. It’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t work in practice. The guy’s more suited to playing Prince Hamlet than a Hugh Grant role. He’s an actor more or less incapable of being loose and funny. The filmmakers probably put him and Lopez together hoping the two would be a study in contrasts, with his angles and her curves interacting. Instead, this couple looks as if they’re on the world’s longest blind date.

For her part, Lopez only looks vaguely troubled when she should be in awe of the rarefied social sphere she’s suddenly in. She’s way too comfortable to play a character who’s dating far above her socioeconomic level. That complacency is dangerous for her artistic future — someone needs to lock her in a room with Steven Soderbergh or some other filmmaker who can figure out how to challenge her. At least her performance is restrained, a quality that’s enhanced by the strident overacting of the supporting cast, including Natasha Richardson, Stanley Tucci, Marissa Matrone, and Amy Sedaris. (Sedaris does deserve a few points for agreeing to look unattractively over-tanned and worn-out.) Strangely enough, the only actor who doesn’t join in the scenery-chewing is Bob Hoskins as a hotel butler who knows about Marisa’s deception but keeps quiet. His little speech about how it takes dignity to work a service job is an exquisite bit of underplaying.

Screenwriter Kevin Wade pads out the movie with some plot threads that feel extraneous, like the one about Marisa’s mother — she’s always trying to squash her daughter’s career ambitions. Having Marisa’s young son (Tyler Garcia Posey) bring about the story’s resolution is a miscalculation, and the boy’s fixation with all things from the 1970s feels like an artificial quirk inflicted on the character by a grown-up writer. Director Wayne Wang continues his streak of Hollywood films that completely lack any personality. Yes, his mainstream work is intended to finance his independent efforts (Smoke, The Center of the World) more than it is anything else, but does it have to be so bland? These considerations would matter much less if the odd couple of Lopez and Fiennes hit it off. They don’t, though, which is what ultimately consigns Maid in Manhattan to the laundry bin of film history.

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