The fantasies of Cinderella and the American dream are joined and buffed up for unsure romantic results in “Maid in Manhattan.” A project spilling over with odd details — from Wayne Wang directing George Cukor-style, to Ralph Fiennes’ GOP senatorial candidate’s concern for the working poor and the environment — this Bronx-meets-Upper East Side tale is played at a sober, adult tone that generally resists farcical excess. Pic reps a trend, along with “8 Mile” and “Real Women Have Curves,” of respectfully depicting working-class folk, while obeying the Horatio Alger-like storytelling dictum that they aspire to and realize success. Jennifer Lopez revels in the star role, and though her connection with Fiennes is hardly magnetic, it’s enough to ensure a strong opening weekend before the upcoming onslaught of the Oscar contenders.
Even more than his misbegotten “Anywhere but Here,” Wang’s “Maid” displays the once thoroughly indie-oriented helmer at his most faithful to glossy Hollywood movie-making. The step into conventionality is truly dizzying following the openly erotic “The Center of the World,” thus marking an even starker shift of styles and tones than when Wang made “Anywhere” after the more personal “Chinese Box.”
Kevin Wade’s script (based on Edmond Dantes’ story) begins in the Bronx, as divorced mom Marisa (Lopez) accompanies her intelligent son Ty (Tyler Garcia Posey) to school to hear him deliver a speech on one of his favorite, if extremely unlikely, subjects — Richard Nixon. Marisa’s ex flakes out on his promise to attend Ty’s speech and take him camping, so Marisa and her mom Veronica (Priscilla Lopez) are left to watch the boy flub his Nixon talk and slink off the podium. Marisa consoles him, establishing a genuine mother-son relationship that serves the movie well down the road.
Reading “The Drama of the Gifted Child” on the bus, Marisa arrives at the exclusive Plaza-like Beresford Hotel, where she works as a maid under the fair-minded leadership of Paula Burns (Frances Conroy) and chief butler Lionel Bloch (Bob Hoskins).
Marisa’s pal, fellow maid Stephanie (Marissa Matrone), cajoles Marisa into trying on a Dolce & Gabbana outfit on loan to snooty hotel guest Caroline Lane (Natasha Richardson). The catchphrase for Beresford’s staff is the Orwellian “Strive to be invisible,” yet after bachelor and Senate hopeful Chris Marshall (Fiennes) — ensconced in a suite with his campaign staff headed by ultra-protective handler Jerry Siegel (Stanley Tucci) — ends up seeing Marisa in the Dolce & Gabbana, she’s all too conspicuous. Smitten, and assuming she’s Caroline (with Marisa deliberately avoiding the truth of her identity), Chris takes her and Ty out for a walk in Central Park with his Weimaraner pooch, Rufus.
Already, there are enough elements here to give viewers an overdose of the cutes, but Wang sensibly tones everything down. Chris’ interaction with Ty, for example, is one of a liberal Republican candidate taken with a kid’s political interest. The sojourn in Central Park, a 15-minute idyll that feels like an update of “Barefoot in the Park,” is only let down, as is the rest of the movie, by the absence of the needed spark of truly witty dialogue.
For all the pressure that his character feels from intrusive tabloid press and the Senate candidacy, and even though he never quite clicks with Lopez, Fiennes hasn’t looked so relaxed on screen since moments in “The English Patient.” Lopez — whose character must continue to be attractive to Chris while concealing her vocation from him — manages quite well in this type of drama inside a comedy.
Pic, however, gets into trouble when it reaches for laughs. Silliness involving Richardson’s hopelessly spoiled airhead, who Chris ends up mistakenly inviting over for lunch at which Marisa is a servant and who is the trigger for other theoretically amusing complications, is a painful viewing experience. So is the sight of Marisa’s clownish fellow maids bopping around, but this, at least, is kept thankfully brief.
In the end, “Maid” is about a working gal’s dream of moving up. Marisa’s clash with her mom over refusing to settle for blue-collar mediocrity echoes the same sentiment as “Real Women,” but unlike that hopeful but less romantic indie pic, this romance has Marisa destined to embrace Chris by the final reel, regardless of how little sense it actually makes.
Cast’s supporting staff is a study in contrasts — on one side, the overacting of Richardson as Caroline and Amy Sedaris as her equally snotty friend; on the other, the ingenious Hoskins, true to his character, staying in the background until his big exit speech, and Tucci, delivering his banter with the timing of an ace musician. Posey’s gifted child feels real rather than precious, while Matrone and Priscilla Lopez handily rep varying shades of working-class identity.
Pic’s look is pure widescreen glossiness in the Cukor manner, full of sunny hotel interiors and floating copter shots of a post-9/11 Gotham.