- The Washington Times - Friday, December 13, 2002

"Maid in Manhattan" seldom transcends good-natured mediocrity, but it's so much more flattering to Jennifer Lopez than her recent set of harebrained thrillers, "Angel Eyes" and "Enough," that one imagines divine revelation coming to the rescue of the J.Lo brain trust.

"Why not something on the agreeable and upbeat side?" the Almighty might have hinted. Why not, indeed?

Miss Lopez is cast as a divorced mother from the Bronx who works as a hotel maid and attracts a Prince Charming in the essentially miscast but bemusing person of Ralph Fiennes, an assemblyman from a prominent political clan.

Mistaken identity fuels the infatuation. Mr. Fiennes as dashing bachelor officeholder Christopher Marshall has taken a hotel suite during a fund-raising push. He briefly encounters Miss Lopez as chambermaid Marisa Ventura when she is going about her work but he doesn't recognize her as the fashionably dressed knockout he mistakes for another guest.

This second encounter is booby-trapped by the fact that Marisa is compromising her livelihood. Miss Lopez's character is conveniently putty in the hands of a mischievous and kibitzing co-worker, Stephanie. The heroine has weakened to a suggestion that she try on an outfit that needs to be returned to an apparel shop after being sampled and rejected by a hotel guest, Natasha Richardson as a fetching but hapless man-chaser named Caroline Lane.

The eligible Chris insists on a stroll to Central Park with the disguised Marisa, accompanied by her son Ty (Tyler Garcia Posey). Precocious as both a romantic go-between and a grade-schooler, Ty is preoccupied with a presentation about the presidency of Richard M. Nixon.

The misapprehension endures through a gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Miss Lopez gets to do her Cinderella-at-the-ball appearance, blissfully gowned by Bob Mackie but made up to provoke double takes because her complexion has gone a shade of caramel that seems abnormal and uncalled for.

Marisa also spends the night with her Prince Charming, something of a break with tradition but pictorially justified by a hyperglamorous bedroom evocation from cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub, doting on rain-streaked windows and sumptuous backlighting.

Nevertheless, with the dawn, Marisa has to come clean, and the filmmakers arrange for her to do this without queering future prospects for a fine romance or a hotel-management career.

The movie began as a script by John Hughes of "16 Candles" and "Home Alone" renown that initially was offered to Julia Roberts, evidently on the hunch that she might be susceptible to another Cinderella pretext. She wasn't, oddly enough, and the material was revamped, with Jennifer Lopez as one of the revampers.

Specifically, she suggested the switch to ethnic working mother from the Bronx, and the tailoring was completed by Kevin Wade, whose most successful screenplay, "Working Girl," is echoed recognizably but effectively throughout "Maid."

Instead of the Staten Island-to-Wall Street commute that distinguished Melanie Griffith as an aspiring heroine, Miss Lopez beats a path from the Bronx to midtown Manhattan, putting in long hours at the proud and luxurious Beresford, very solidly and attractively embodied by the Waldorf-Astoria on Park Avenue.

There is an obvious borrowing from "Pretty Woman," the Cinderella brainstorm that did wonders for Julia Roberts: Bob Hoskins as an avuncular staff butler named Lionel, who takes a fond interest in Marisa's welfare and even covers for her during the masquerade, creating grounds for his own dismissal. Lionel clearly is a chip off the block of the major-domo played by Hector Elizondo in "Pretty Woman."

The leading man as well as the leading lady gets a comical sidekick. So does Miss Richardson as the heroine's token rival. Mr. Fiennes is paired with Stanley Tucci as a watchful campaign manager named Jerry Siegel.

Although "Maid in Manhattan" is not a musical, it clearly sets the stage for an eventual Broadway musical-comedy adaptation, especially during an interlude in which the heroine and some other maids go into an impromptu dance. Sooner or later, that moment will become a sustained production number.

Miss Lopez brings a sometimes careworn sincerity and ardor to the role of Marisa that gives this Cinderella update unexpected distinction and appeal. "Maid in Manhattan" will more than suffice as an irresistible holiday trifle.


TITLE: "Maid in Manhattan"

RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting sexual candor and comic vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by Wayne Wang. Screenplay by Kevin Wade, from a story by "Edmond Dantes."

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes


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