Dir: Wayne Wang. US. 2002. 105 mins.
A bland but smartly packaged and deftly executed take on the familiar Cinderella fairy tale, Maid In Manhattan has already, with a gross of $76.7m after four weeks, given Jennifer Lopez her biggest US hit to date. Now it looks set to give the pop diva (whose previous screen outings have performed only modestly) a substantial international success as well. If Pretty Woman and other comparable romances are anything to go by, the story will certainly travel well. And though the film may not have the launch pad of a pre-Christmas release slot in international territories, it will benefit from J-Lo's popularity in Latin countries and from the presence of some classy British supporting players in English-speaking markets.
John Hughes (who takes a story credit under his sometime pen name of Edmond Dantes) and screenwriter Kevin Wade (Working Girl) manage to give the old tale a reasonably credible contemporary setting without sacrificing its romantic appeal. In this version, Cinders becomes Marisa (Lopez), a single mother working as a maid in a posh Manhattan hotel who struggles to balance the needs of her young son (Garcia Posey, previously seen in Collateral Damage) with her own ambitions for a better life. Prince Charming becomes Christopher Marshall (Fiennes), a handsome and debonair US senator. The principal Ugly Sister is Caroline Lane (Richardson), a gossipy Manhattan socialite with designs on the eminently eligible Christopher.
The political prince and the lowly maid meet when, in classic romantic comedy style, Christopher mistakes Marisa for a guest at the hotel. The budding romance, encouraged by Marisa's feisty co-workers and her cute but anxious son, survives the pretence and the attention of the New York paparazzi but comes to a crisis at a swanky charity ball. The lovers are finally united in a decidedly pat Christmastime climax.
Though it never allows reality to intrude too much on romantic fantasy, the film does touch on the racial and social issues raised by its contemporary setting. The real-life elements keep the fantasy from becoming too far fetched and give the film a relatively adult tone that should help attract mature cinemagoers as well as J-Lo's younger fans. In a departure from the indie style and content of some of his earlier films, director Wayne Wang displays an assured ability for mainstream storytelling and cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub (The Princess Diaries) decorates the proceedings with some attractive New York City location footage.
Lopez never entirely convinces as a hard working single mum, but the role does bring out a warmth that has been missing from some of her other screen performances. And her pop star presence certainly comes through when the plot allows her to don the jewellery and couture costumes of a wealthy, sophisticated New Yorker.
Fiennes is hardly stretched by his flimsy role - the supposedly fast-rising senator seems to leave all the politics to his stressed-out aide (Tucci) - but he breezes through his most commercial movie to date with enough easy charm to give Hugh Grant a run for his money. Richardson goes a little over the top in the film's broadest comic role while Hoskins adds a nicely plaintive note as the hotel's downtrodden but dignified head butler.
Prod cos: Revolution Studios, Red Om Films, Columbia Pictures.
Dist: Sony Pictures Entertainment (US),
Int'l Dist: Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International
Prods: Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Deborah Schindler, Paul Schiff.
Exec prods: Charles Newirth, Benny Medina.
Scr: Kevin Wade.
DoP: Karl Walter Lindenlaub.
Prod des: Jane Musky.
Ed: Craig McKay.
Music: Alan Silvestri.
Main cast: Jennifer Lopez, Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Stanley Tucci, Bob Hoskins, Tyler Garcia Posey.
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