In Maid in Manhattan, Jennifer Lopez stoops to conquer.

In Maid in Manhattan, Jennifer Lopez stoops to conquer.

In Maid in Manhattan, Jennifer Lopez stoops to conquer.

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Dec. 11 2002 11:07 AM

J. Lo Cleans Up

In Maid in Manhattan, Jennifer Lopez stoops to conquer.

Romantic comedies tend to present being lower class as one of life's petty obstacles, easily surmounted, like not having the right haircut. But whenever class becomes the central arc of a movie rather than a footnote, it can provide a necessary kick, electrifying the whole affair. Think of those two perennial guilty pleasures, Working Girl (1988) and Pretty Woman (1990). Melanie and Julia do actually live low—in a halfway convincing Hollywood style—before they get to live high. They may go uptown via their sex appeal and a snappily-paced shopping montage, but we knew them when they were just a secretary and a prostitute.

Lopez and Fiennes cross the boundaries of good taste
Lopez and Fiennes cross the boundaries of good taste

Maid in Manhattan (Columbia Pictures), starring Jennifer Lopez, aspires to follow in the tradition of these movies. It opens the same way that Working Girl did, with a helicopter-eye view of the Financial District. Instead of sun-glinted skyscrapers, the director Wayne Wang plainly shows us a post-Sept. 11 skyline: no twin towers, the city covered in low clouds, rain on the way. Perhaps we're in for more than a dash of glossy realism. But as the camera slides toward the Bronx, the music begins: "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" by Paul Simon. Not exactly the block-rocking beats that light up the barrio. The movie hasn't entered the Bronx, it's already entered la-la land.

Ironically, the Paul Simon song is probably one of the few remaining elements of the original script, written by John Hughes, who smartly used class as the engine for his teen movies (Pretty in Pink [1986], The Breakfast Club [1985]). This project, titled "The Chambermaid," was supposed to be Hughes' long-awaited return as a director. It never got off the ground, and the script was rewritten as a vehicle for Jennifer Lopez. The 32-year-old diva also reportedly came up with the new title, which seems pointlessly literal, until connected with Lopez herself, or, more precisely, the J. Lo brand.

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Lopez was born in the Bronx and grew up there, and although she went to Catholic school and her parents were middle class, she sprinkles her interviews with ghetto-correct language, like "that shit is too small" or "make them pay out the ass." The new diva status symbol is having a hit movie and a hit record simultaneously, something that Lopez already pulled off in 2001, and Maid dovetails nicely with This Is Me … Then, Lopez's just released album. As she sings in her new single, "Don't be fooled by the rocks I got, I'm still, I'm still Jenny from the block."

In Maid, Lopez plays Marisa Ventura, who cleans suites all day at the ultra-posh Beresford Hotel and at night goes home to her Bronx apartment to be with her lovable, precocious son Ty (Tyler Posey). Into this scenario enters Ralph Fiennes, the actor currently offering the most convincing proof for the existence of British sex appeal. I was a little worried about how the decision to cast him might sit with loyal Lopez fans, especially when I saw the words, "How queer can I be?" written next to Fiennes' head on a subway poster for Maid. He plays an American called Christopher Marshall, who's a JFK Jr. type, the scion of a political family considering a run for Senate. Fiennes has brought substantial intensity to the screen in the past, but here he speaks all of his lines abnormally slowly, as if that would lessen the pain. Let's hope this is the last time he plays a mannequin.

This movie belongs to J. Lo, a star who has already reached the career point where her presence informs and overwhelms anything she does. When Lopez gets dressed in the employee locker room, instead of thinking things like "Oh, there's a maid getting ready for work," the conversation in your head is something like, "Oh, J. Lo looks pretty good in a maid outfit, especially when she has her hair down like that." The movie is one long string of J. Lo tableaux: There she is taking the bus (she pays the fare with change), there she is reading Alice Miller's Drama of the Gifted Child, there she is scrubbing the toilet, there she is trying on a guest's $5,000 white Dolce & Gabbana jacket, and so on for about 90 minutes.

Ralph Fiennes sees Jennifer Lopez in this Dolce jacket, assumes she's a guest at the hotel, and they exchange the time-honored movie look of love—wide-eyed, lips slightly parted. From this point forward, you would assume that Fiennes would try to woo Lopez, but he really seems to be smitten with her son Ty. He and the grade-school-age Ty talk about politics, they exchange confidences, they develop their own coded rapport. The kid is everywhere. It's nice to know that Fiennes' character is premium daddy material and that J. Lo's Marisa is a good mother, but couldn't they, at least once, just have an extended conversation with each other? Being nice to children is a way of underlining that a celebrity is caring and real (see Eminem in 8 Mile) or that a bachelor has honest intentions, but it's also a clichéd cop-out. Show us how two adults might fall in love, or at least give us an honest cad or a single mother who wouldn't mind leaving her child at home every now and then.

The movie, unsurprisingly, also treads recklessly over the race divide. There's a sharp, funny moment when Ralph Fiennes describes Jennifer Lopez as "5 feet 6 inch, Mediterranean looking," but that's about it. Lopez has presence, but she's not called upon to act or even to be sexy. Her image of late, at least in film, has been aggressively prim, a long way from the Fly Girl dancer she once was on In Living Color. Forget about Ben Affleck, it's as if she broke up with P. Diddy and got hitched to her white turtleneck. The big love scene between her and Ralph is a shadowy embrace that fades to the rain outside, and her triumphant debut at a black-tie benefit is equally tame. She looks like she's on her way to the prom. Next time, the dress should be a little more South Bronx, a little less Scarsdale.

At this point in the movie, the concern is not will Ralph and Jennifer make it after all, but rather, why did she sleep with that uncomfortable-looking Harry Winston necklace on all night? Yet Wayne Wang paces the scenes leisurely, and a supporting cast of Stanley Tucci, Natasha Richardson, and an underused Amy Sedaris keeps the proceedings reasonably buoyant. J. Lo will earn her share of the holiday box office pie, although this movie makes one thing perfectly clear: She's a pretty woman, but she's no working girl.