If folklore, oral tradition, and the Brothers Grimm hadn't transmitted the Cinderella tale down through the years, surely Hollywood would have invented it. Centuries of stories and generations of movies about a poor, but worthy, young woman who falls in love with a man of higher station, overcomes the obstacles of isolation and oppression, and ultimately finds true love, wealth, and a concomitant happiness, have instructed us all in the sweet and entirely fallacious notion that virtue and right action guarantee both material and spiritual success. After years of those pleasing falsehoods, the formula still works --- such recent motion pictures as Working Girl, Pretty Woman, the remake of Sabrina, and now, Maid in Manhattan, demonstrate that the story not only continues to inspire the film industry, but also manages to please millions of people and, consequently, make a great deal of money.
In Maid in Manhattan, the familiar fiction also, appropriately, serves as a vehicle for Jennifer Lopez, currently one of the hottest female performers in America. Cleverly employing and updating just about all the clichés of romantic comedy, along with its archetypal inspiration, the movie skillfully exploits its plot, its backgrounds, its situation, and its cast to produce what at times seems like a perfectly programmed and orchestrated, if harmless, series of cinematic exercises in sheer audience manipulation. In its slick, glittery way, it provides a kind of tribute to all those films, novels, and folk tales that stretch back from the present moment to the very beginnings of narrative itself.
Lopez plays Marisa Ventura, a single mother who works as a maid at a posh New York hotel and lives in a working-class neighborhood in Queens, just across the river and a thousand miles from Manhattan. She works hard at a difficult and unrewarding job, obeys orders from some relatively unsympathetic supervisors, and must cope with the snobbery and pettiness of the rich and privileged guests. Her co-workers persuade her to apply for a managerial position, which may provide her with a route to some financial security and personal fulfillment --- and, of course, proves her deserving of the fate she encounters.
Marisa meets her prince in the traditionally unbelievable manner of comedy, through the familiar device of mistaken identity. The suitor, Chris Marshall (Ralph Fiennes), is a rich playboy politician in the George W. Bush mode with his own rather amateurish aspiration: a somewhat desultory campaign for the United States Senate. Marshall believes Marisa is someone else of his own class. Unwilling to tell him the truth, Marisa maintains the fiction long enough to keep the plot cooking along in a most artificial manner. The more-or-less innocent deception enables her to attend the obligatory ball --- in this instance, a charity do at the Metropolitan Museum --- where, of course, she outshines the whole crowd of wealthy and glamorous women (including a version of the nasty stepsister). To show how times have changed, at least in one respect, she ends up spending the night with her swain, instead of fleeing in a pumpkin.
Aside from all the updating of the ancient story, the picture displays Lopez to good effect. She looks stunning, even in her maid's outfit, and handles her part without major awkwardness or profound ineptitude. The rest of the accomplished cast works competently in roles that require little more than caricatures of actors recognizable to any student of the cinema. Fiennes projects a certain easy confidence and humor as the sort of character that Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, or even Van Johnson often played in the past. Stanley Tucci, as his campaign manager, distinguishes himself as the fussy sidekick in the tradition of, say, James Gleason, Wallace Ford, or Tony Randall. The rest of the casting resembles some great warehouse of the retrogressive, where contemporary actors, in effect, imitate their predecessors --- Natasha Richardson does the young Angela Lansbury, while Marissa Matrone turns in a perfectly acceptable Patsy Kelly.
Although now and then the characters, particularly Marisa, raise some of the questions of class and privilege that, in fact, form the basis of the story's conflicts, the screenwriter, no doubt for fear of offending, quickly drops the issue and, along with it, any righteous anger. On his way to give a speech at a housing project in the Bronx, Marshall is informed by Marisa that she grew up in such a place, and that it would be better for all the rich folks simply to give money to inner city schools, instead of attending charity balls at which they can display their philanthropy. As the chief butler at her hotel --- do such beings really exist? --- Bob Hoskins' character eloquently underlines the paradox of her position, telling Marisa that to serve others does not make one their servant, and that she should not, therefore, believe herself inferior to the generally awful people whose demands and whims they must gratify.
Maid in Manhattan currently ranks among the two or three most profitable movies now playing, which indicates the attraction of Lopez and the deathless appeal of the story. With its excellent, precise location shooting in New York City, its attractive people and places, and even the presence of an obnoxiously cute and lovable little kid (Tyler Garcia Posey as Lopez's son), plus a dog, it pushes just about all the right buttons. Cinderella in any incarnation still draws the crowds, proving once again that nothing pleases or even surprises more than the expected.
Maid in Manhattan, starring Jennifer Lopez, Ralph Fiennes, Stanley Tucci, Natasha Richardson, Tyler Garcia Posey, Frances Conroy, Chris Eigeman, Amy Sedaris, Marisssa Matrone, Priscilla Lopez, Bob Hoskins; screenplay by Kevin Wade; directed by Wayne Wang. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.
You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:15 a.m.; rerun on Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.