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Maid in Manhattan

Single-mom Marisa Ventura (Jennifer Lopez) finds herself burdened not just by her job or her haranguing mother (Priscilla Lopez) — they are things she simply has to deal with in order to provide for her son, 10-year-old Ty (Tyler Garcia Posey), a gifted child with a precocious interest in American politics. A devoted mother who frequently is let down by her absent ex-husband, Marisa works at a ritzy Manhattan hotel on the housekeeping staff. She makes a point of being punctual and professional, although co-worker Paula (Frances Conroy) thinks her younger colleague lacks ambition and fears taking risks. Thus, it's Paula who places Marisa in precarious spots, like submitting a management application on her behalf. Or encouraging her to try on a hotel guest's clothes ("When are we ever going to wear a $5,000 anything?" she asks). And in fact, it's this latter moment that leads to complications: Decked out in an autumn outfit, Marisa suddenly finds herself face-to-face with Christopher Marshall (Ralph Fiennes), a Republican candidate for U.S. Senator who just met young Ty in the hotel and was impressed with the boy's nascent political acumen. The meeting leads to a pleasant walk in Central Park, but Marisa won't tell Chris that she's a maid and tries to avoid any entanglement — which only gets the politician even more interested in this beguiling Latina beauty. Another in an endless string of predictable romantic comedies sprung from the Hollywood leviathan, Maid in Manhattan easily could be categorized as a Cinderella story were it not for the fact that it has a much more recent pedigree: Garry Marshall's Pretty Woman (1990), which it follows as if it were the über-rom-com's own inescapable shadow. Both stories take place in a four-star hotel; the romance is class-conscious with a wealthy, socially secure male lead, while the woman of the piece is of a lower stripe; Cinderella has an encouraging female friend who criticizes her lack of self-esteem; she also finds a fairy godmother in the form of an older, male hotel employee (in this case, Bob Hoskins as a soft-spoken butler). The only thing Maid delivers on its own is the single-mother subplot (the only problem being that one is lifted from dozens of other movies). But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised; the screenplay (by Kevin Wade) is adapted from a John Hughes treatment, and this film is the most high-profile project that writer/director has been associated with in more than a decade. One would have expected Hughes to direct as well, even though he hasn't been behind the camera in years. Oddly, the job went to Wayne Wang (Smoke, The Joy Luck Club), who helms his first romantic comedy. Coming off the erotic Center of the World (2001), it's a bizarre transition for the director, but he handles the affair unobtrusively, giving plenty of latitude to the film's stars. Jennifer Lopez is her typical self playing her typical role — her fans are bound to enjoy the picture, while her detractors will find nothing new to criticize. Ralph Fiennes may drop a few odd nasal inflections into his American accent (why couldn't they just revise the script and let this Brit deliver his dialogue in his mellifluous native tones?), and he also comes across a bit blandly, but he's nonetheless a handsome leading man. The supporting cast is a mixed bag as well — Natasha Richardson plays a bitchy English socialite, Frances Conroy as Paula seems overly pushy, and Stanley Tucci delivers a one-note performance as Marshall's driven political advisor. Only Bob Hoskins as butler Lionel Bloch gives the movie any note of subtlety or grace, and it's a shame he wasn't used more. It won't surprise anyone by the time it's over, but Maid in Manhattan is a harmless carriage-ride through midtown and a perfectly acceptable way to kill two hours. Columbia TriStar's DVD release features a clean anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 (English or French). Trailer gallery, keep-case.

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