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'Maid In Manhattan'

J.Lo keeps it real as Cinderella in 'Maid'

Friday, December 13, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

I was going to ask if the plot of "Maid in Manhattan" sounds familiar, but why shouldn't it? Hollywood hasn't been nurturing a lot of original ideas lately. Sequels, remakes and updates are the order of the day.

'Maid In Manhattan'

RATING: PG-13 for some language/sexual references

STARRING: Jennifer Lopez, Ralph Fiennes

DIRECTOR: Wayne Wang

WEB SITE: www.maidinmanhattan


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"Maid in Manhattan" can trace its lineage to such films as "Working Girl" (both screenplays are by Kevin Wade) and "Pretty Woman" (hooker plays dress-up in a fancy hotel where she has a romance with a wealthy, powerful man). Put them all together and you have Cinderella.

This time, she's played by Jennifer Lopez, the superstar who gravitates to working-class movie roles. She portrays Marisa Ventura, a maid at a fancy Manhattan hotel (the movie was filmed at the Waldorf-Astoria).

Like the Melanie Griffith character in "Working Girl," she lives in one of the outer boroughs -- in this case, the Bronx. But she is also a single mother, and while she has aspirations for a better life, she doesn't act on them. When a management training program opens up, her application is submitted by her best friend on the housekeeping staff, the brash Stephanie (Marissa Matrone).

Stephanie also cajoles her into trying on a designer outfit being lent to socialite Caroline Lane (Natasha Richardson), a hotel guest who believes in entitlement programs -- namely, that the rich are entitled to everything. Richardson softens her up by playing her for laughs, emphasizing her obviousness and a touch of desperation.

Marisa is dressed to the nines when Prince Charming arrives in the person of Chris Marshall (Ralph Fiennes), a dapper young man on the make and a potential Senate candidate. But Chris seems more interested in chasing skirts than in pursuing votes, especially after he meets Marisa, even though he thinks she's Caroline. We know he wouldn't give her a second look in her maid's uniform.

Marisa knows his fascination with her means trouble, but Chris won't give up despite the increasingly enjoyable distress of his campaign manager (Stanley Tucci). Midnight arrives, the coach turns into a pumpkin, but we know the prince eventually will come around with a glass slipper.

For all of its predictability, the movie has its charms -- and a few things we don't expect.

The director, Hong Kong native Wayne Wang, has spent most of his American career making art-house movies, including "Smoke" and "The Center of the World." He strives to keep "Maid in Manhattan" from fluttering away on gossamer wings by grounding it in whatever reality he can muster. Accordingly, the movie has an "Upstairs Downstairs" dynamic that shows us the part of the hotel we never see, the underbelly where the staff plies its many trades.

But Lopez also knows something about living in the Bronx and aspiring to a better life -- she did that for the first 20 years of her life. That's one reason this enormous superstar can wield some credibility in a role like this. The irony lies in the way the paparazzi and the tabloids swarm all over Chris Marshall as if he were, well, J. Lo. The movie even throws in a gag about Lopez's butt, which has taken on a fame of its own. The issue of celebrity becomes the other side of the movie's "Upstairs Downstairs" equation.

Lopez and Fiennes pair off well enough, although you may wonder at times if they have enough chemistry to set off the old fireworks, if you know what I mean. Along with Tucci, the best supporting role belongs to Bob Hoskins as the hotel's head butler, a father figure for Marisa who retains his dignity through all trials and tribulations and lends it to the movie whenever he's around.

The ending is contrived but inevitable. It would have been interesting if the movie had acknowledged that happy endings sometimes come at a price. But then it wouldn't be Cinderella. J. Lo lives the fantasy. The rest of us come by it vicariously.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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