As saccharine as it is disposable, this pillow mint of a movie stars Jennifer Lopez as Marisa Ventura, a single mom from the Bronx who catches the eye of an ambitious politician, Christopher Marshall (Ralph Fiennes), while working as a maid in a swank Park Avenue hotel. Marshall, a world-class Lothario and the scion of a political dynasty, accidentally takes Marisa for the wealthy ninny (Natasha Richardson) encamped in a neighboring suite.
The mistake yields a romantic walk in the park, a minor tabloid tempest but finally no surprises, this despite the odd-couple pairing of Lopez, a performer born for the spotlight, and Fiennes, an actor who invariably seems pained when cast as a romantic lead.
Written by Kevin Wade (whose credits include "Working Girl") and directed by Wayne Wang (best known for "The Joy Luck Club"), "Maid in Manhattan" is blithely impersonal. There's a touch of grit, especially in Marisa's home life, and an occasional reminder of some guiding intelligence (her commuter reading consists of "The Drama of the Gifted Child"), but nothing too heavy or complex to get in the way of either the emotional uplift or the star attraction. Lopez doesn't have to do much except hold the screen, which she does effortlessly. You can't take your eyes off her even when your attention drifts, but it would be nice to see her again take on a role where she actually works for our attention and earns our respect, as she did in "Out of Sight."
The supporting cast helps pass the time, notably Bob Hoskins as the hotel's head butler and Marissa Matrone as Marisa's motor-mouthed cleaning partner. There's something appealing about the film's sympathetic attitude toward these characters, who spend their days anonymously opening doors and mopping up other people's messes, even if the point of this fairy tale is, finally, to escape their fate as quickly as possible.
In this limited sense, "Maid in Manhattan" is certainly an improvement on the usual Cinderella fantasies furnished by the likes of "Pretty Woman," especially since Marisa doesn't have to turn tricks on her way to the fancy-dress ball. That this particular chambermaid also doesn't scrub a single toilet, however, somehow goes without saying.
'Maid in Manhattan'
MPAA rating: PG-13, for some language/sexual references.
Times guidelines: A single demure sex scene fades out before anything happens; a few surprisingly crude jokes.
Jennifer Lopez...Marisa Ventura
Ralph Fiennes...Christopher Marshall
Natasha Richardson...Caroline Lane
Stanley Tucci...Jerry Siegel
Revolution Studios Presents a Red Om Films Production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Wayne Wang. Writer Kevin Wade. Story by Edmond Dantes. Producers Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Deborah Schindler, Paul Schiff. Director of photography Karl Walter Lindenlaub. Production designer Jane Musky. Editor Craig McKay. Costume designer Albert Wolsky. Music Alan Silvestri. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. In general release.