Marisa Ventura (Jennifer Lopez) is a struggling maid in one of New York City's top hotels. Juggling her work with the raising of her 10 year-old son (Tyler Posey), Marisa dreams of a better life, but is afraid of taking a risk to achieve it. Enter Chris Marshall (Ralph Fiennes), a senate candidate who has grown weary of the campaign trail. When an incident involving mistaken identity leads Chris to believe that Marisa is a guest of the hotel, he's instantly smitten with her. Soon enough, Marisa finds herself in over her head, unable to reveal her true vocation to her admirer, and, in the process, trying not to jeopardize her co-workers' jobs with her tomfoolery.
Trapped inside "Maid in Manhattan" (IMDb listing) is a charming little picture with an unusual filmmaking pedigree behind it. Director Wayne Wang, who made more artistic choices in his earlier pictures "The Joy Luck Club" and "Smoke," takes the reigns of this big-time Hollywood film. Coming off his deliciously lurid stripper vs. Internet geek fantasy "The Center Of The World," "Maid" feels like a palate cleanser for the filmmaker. It isn't anything to scream about, but Wang's filmmaking skills transform deathly predictable material into something enjoyable, and even a smidge touching.
The biggest working component in "Maid" is Jennifer Lopez, who for the first time in a long time is able to create onscreen appeal that eclipses her offscreen persona. There is little to no "JLo" in Lopez's performance, and she actually makes the leap into fusing a little reality into her blue-collar role. After all the years singing about how "real" she is, here's a role that showcases some honest-to-god sweetness underneath all the glam. It's revelatory, especially after what I thought would be her career-ender, last May's "Enough."
Ralph Fiennes is unexpectedly appealing here as well. The normally uncompromising, chilly actor takes the opportunity within "Maid" to warm up. Initially, the sight of Fiennes smiling and being jovial is disconcerting. After all, this is the same man who tore up the screen in "Red Dragon," playing the frequently naked, tattoo-covered, human-lips-eating serial killer Francis Dollarhyde. Watching him kissing ladies, shaking hands, and being nice to children takes some getting used to. Soon enough, it isn't so weird to see Fiennes court Lopez, and by the end of the film, I really appreciated the risk Fiennes took here by playing way outside his normal range of characters. I wouldn't say he has a future as a Cary Grant-type, but this is another interesting choice for the talented performer.
Being light and bubbly is in "Maid In Manhattan's" best interest, for when it tries to engage in a not-too-subtle class conflict subplot, the effect drowns the picture instantly. Rich vs. poor is fine for other features, but "Maid" doesn't need it. There are already enough conflicts, both comedic and dramatic, to keep the film occupied without Wang and screenwriter Kevin Wade ("Junior") interjecting gold-digging suggestions into the plot. It doesn't make sense within the story, and it radically betrays the characters' initial motivations.
This film was a surprise. I had written off Jennifer Lopez's abilities and charisma, but here you go -- honest proof that it still exists.
Filmfodder Grade: B