Offbeat filmmaker Wayne Wang’s films (Chan Is Missing, Smoke, The Center of the World, et al) have always tended to be somewhat outside the mainstream. When Wang is paired with teen-comedy Brat Pack maestro John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Home Alone), the pair make for even stranger bedfellows than the rich Republican senatorial candidate and Puerto Rican hotel maid that arise from their collaboration.
Even though Hughes was only responsible (under his Monte Cristo-inspired alias, Edmond Dantes) for Maid in Manhattan’s story line, the end results often have more in common with his work than Wang’s. Let’s put it this way: No one in Maid in Manhattan finds a creative use for a lollipop. On the other hand, the film does have the strange combination of briskness and leisureliness that marks all of Wang’s work. But as a story … well, it’s a big, glossy, slick romantic comedy that’s about as grounded in reality as a gross of helium balloons.
The thing is there’s nothing wrong with that, since Maid in Manhattan never pretends to be more than it is: a pretty movie about pretty people in pretty surroundings falling in love. It may take a poke at class consciousness, women’s rights and racism, but it’s ultimately a light-weight romantic fantasy — and on those terms, it’s not a bad night at the movies.
Jennifer Lopez makes a splendid leading lady, and the role is a welcome return to form from the silly histrionics of Enough. Ralph Fiennes is immensely likable, carrying himself with a nicely bemused detachment — as the in-name-only Republican senatorial candidate who falls for her. They’re a nice pair within the Cinderella parameters of the film. Of course, by the dictates of this kind of movie, they’re perhaps a little bland.
Kevin Wade’s (Working Girl) screenplay, however, is smart enough to fall back on the age-old romantic-comedy convention of populating the film with delightful and funny supporting players, who threaten to steal the movie right out from under the noses of its stars. In this case, the honors go to Natasha Richardson as a singularly wigged-out Sotheby’s buyer who, through typical genre conventions, thinks Fiennes has romantic designs on her, and Stanley Tucci as Fiennes’ beleagured and thoroughly unscrupulous campaign manager. Also good is Tyler Garcia Posey as J-Lo’s son. Sure, he’s alarmingly cute and precocious, but the script gives him some interesting eccentricities (an obsession with 1970s music and Richard Nixon) that offer the illusion of individuality, if not reality. Toss in Bob Hoskins as a sympathetic hotel butler and Marissa Matrone as Lopez’ forthright best friend, and you have the elements for an entertaining farce.
Blessedly, the screenplay piles on details and confusion in such profusion that you don’t really have time to question any of it while it’s on the screen. Afterwards, you might rightly question why Lopez didn’t just straighten things out sooner, how some of the misunderstandings could have occurred in the first place, and so on. But that’s afterwards. While it’s on the screen, Maid in Manhattan works quite well — at least for most of the film.
The last section stretches credulity to a point that seems out of bounds even for its fantasy world, and it finally becomes too sweet and feel-good for its own good (when Tyler Garcia Posey moves from behind Fiennes and Lopez in their final clinch in order to not get out of camera range, you may want to throw things at the screen), but everything that comes before that is good enough entertainment that you don’t much mind.