Maid In Manhattan let Jennifer Lopez’s rom-com talents sparkle

Screenshot: Maid In Manhattan
When Romance Met ComedyWhen Romance Met ComedyWith When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.

It is a truth too infrequently acknowledged that Jennifer Lopez is one of our most talented living performers. Lopez’s status as a multi-hyphenate means she often gets discussed as a generic “celebrity” in a way that undermines her genuine talent as both a musical entertainer and, especially, an actor. Although Lopez is sometimes thought of as a singer-turned-actor, she was actually an actor-turned-singer (and a dancer before all of that). Her breakthrough performance came in the 1997 biopic Selena, and her early film career included a diverse slate of material—from Steven Soderbergh’s neo-noir crime comedy Out Of Sight to the revenge thriller Enough. Plus, along with Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, and Kate Hudson, Lopez is also a bona fide rom-com queen. That’s especially impressive when you consider she carved out a hugely successful leading lady career in a genre that tends to relegate people of color to minor supporting roles.

Between 2001 and 2012, Lopez starred in seven major studio romantic comedies. To be fair, a lot of them were the lowest common denominator rom-coms Hollywood was regularly churning out in the early 2000s (e.g., Monster-In-Law), and one of them was the infamous Gigli. But Lopez tends to be a compelling screen presence even when the material is bad. And two of her romantic comedies—The Wedding Planner and Maid In Manhattan—are pretty beloved entries in the rom-com canon. So Lopez has earned a lot of rom-com goodwill over the years. That’s probably why the trailer for her upcoming Second Act got a whole lot of positive buzz when it was released. Not only is it Lopez’s first return to the genre in six years, it also looks very much like a spiritual sequel to Maid In Manhattan.

Released in 2002, just a year after Lopez’s first rom-com turn in The Wedding Planner, Maid In Manhattan is a 21st-century update on Cinderella. It keeps the fairy-tale romance, but consciously throws in some updated themes about female empowerment, class, and, to a lesser extent, race. Lopez plays Marisa Ventura, a single mom who works as a maid at a swanky Manhattan hotel. Her focus is on raising her precocious 10-year-old son, Ty (future Teen Wolf star Tyler Posey), and potentially trying to work her way up to a position in hotel management. But she finds herself thrust into a whirlwind romance when she’s caught trying on a pricey Dolce & Gabbana outfit and mistaken for a wealthy guest by dashing senatorial candidate Chris Marshall (Ralph Fiennes). After Chris immediately falls for her, Marisa has to decide whether it’s worth jeopardizing her job to pursue the spark between them.

The project began as a John Hughes script called The Chambermaid, and Hughes initially planned to make the film his directorial comeback as well. Maid In Manhattan received (and continues to receive) some pushback for casting a Latina actress in a stereotypical role as a maid, though Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, and Hilary Swank were initially approached to star. Eventually Hughes left the project, Lopez was brought on board, and writer Kevin Wade (Junior, Working Girl) was hired to retool the script for her. (The final film’s story-by credit is still given to Edmond Dantès—Hughes’ pseudonym.) To round out the team, Hong Kong-born director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) was brought on to helm the project.

My A.V. Club colleague Ignatiy Vishnevetsky wrote a great piece about the ways in which Maid In Manhattan is an unexpectedly well-directed rom-com. As he puts it:

Working with cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub, director Wayne Wang uses graceful anamorphic wide-screen compositions to orient the viewer in the physical and social space of the hotel. There’s no incentive for Wang to direct the [hotel’s] morning meeting as a shot/reverse shot—cutting between the management and the maids in order to establish the disconnection between the two groups—or to use wider-than-average compositions so that extras are always visible in the frame. But he does it anyway, creating a sense of the cramped world that the characters inhabit. That’s integrity—the thing filmmakers do because they feel compelled to, not because they have to.

Yet despite the film’s thoughtful aesthetic and a great turn from Lopez, Maid In Manhattan is still a bit of a middle-of-the-road rom-com. It’s far better than the worst the genre has to offer, but it doesn’t rise to the heights of stone-cold classics like When Harry Met Sally or Bridget Jones’s Diary. Tonally, Maid In Manhattan leans toward the dramatic side of the rom-com spectrum—more Sleepless In Seattle than Hitch. And while plenty of great rom-coms downplay the com, Maid In Manhattan is missing just a little bit of necessary zippiness, especially in its second half.

In particular, Maid In Manhattan plays its romance a bit too straight, with little of the witty banter that so often defines a rom-com relationship. We’re meant to almost immediately invest in the genuine meant-to-be romance of Marisa and Chris, despite the fact that the movie doesn’t really sell their relationship all that well. It doesn’t help that Ralph Fiennes feels slightly miscast in his role. As with George Peppard in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, it’s not a disastrous miscasting, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s off about the performance. There are moments where Fiennes is quite charming, especially in Chris’ sweet friendship with Ty. But whether because of the acting, directing, or writing (the character’s pretty underdeveloped), it’s hard to invest in either Chris or his relationship with Marisa. It’s also hard to imagine why the filmmakers decided to cast Fiennes in a romantic role that doesn’t take advantage of his British accent.

But like a surprising number of rom-coms, Maid In Manhattan works much better as a solo character study than as a romance. Thanks in no small part to Lopez’s lived-in performance, Marisa remains a consistently compelling character throughout the film. And like Working Girl and Pretty Woman (two films cited as influences on the project), Maid In Manhattan is the rare rom-com that actually cares about class.

Rom-coms tend to take place in a world where money problems are either non-existent or plot obstacles to be easily overcome or waved away. But Maid In Manhattan knows that a version of New York filled with large, lavish living quarters is a version available only to a select few—in this case, the elite who stay at the luxurious Beresford Hotel. When Marisa wears an elegant all-white ensemble, she spends the whole time panicking about getting it dirty (a hilariously relatable detail). And though she does get a glamorous makeover before attending a fancy fundraising gala with Chris, it comes not from a fairy godmother but the friends she’s made in the service industry over the years. That Marisa knows a cohort of Manhattan saleswomen willing to lend her fancy gowns and Harry Winston diamond necklaces isn’t exactly a believable turn of events. But it’s a much more grounded fantasy than the traditional Cinderella story.

Most importantly, Marisa’s job as a hotel maid isn’t presented as a burden she has to be rescued from. Instead, it’s a stepping-stone on her way to a career in hotel management, not to mention a perfectly valid job in its own right. Writer Kevin Wade clearly has a huge amount of respect for people in the service industry. That’s never clearer than when he has hotel butler/Marisa’s mentor Lionel Bloch (a pitch-perfect Bob Hoskins) deliver this lovely sentiment:

To serve people takes dignity and intelligence. But remember, they’re only people with money. And although we serve them, we are not their servants. What we do, Miss Ventura, does not define who we are. What defines us is how well we rise after falling.

And Lopez’s performance entirely sells that idea. We see Marisa’s intelligence, empathy, creativity, and problem-solving skills throughout the film, even as the wealthy hotel guests ignore or belittle her. Marisa’s worth comes not from what she does but how well she does it. And that includes being a phenomenal mom despite having a lackluster co-parent in Ty’s inattentive dad. (Like Sleepless In Seattle, Maid In Manhattan makes time for a sweet, realistic parent/child relationship in addition to its central romance.) Whereas lots of rom-coms try to make their heroines relatable by making them clumsy or bumbling, Maid In Manhattan makes Marisa relatable by demonstrating just how hard she works and how good she is at her job.

Given that it mostly wants to be a feel-good movie, complete with a brief dance sequence set to “I’m Coming Out,” there are limits to how far Maid In Manhattan pushes its social commentary. Marisa and Chris butt heads over class and politics, but only to the extent that it helps fuel their romance. Marisa gets in some good zingers about the way politicians use issues like inner-city poverty to lift their own profiles more so than to actually help the poor. Yet the fact that Chris is not only a politician but a Republican politician is presented as a quirky fact of his biography rather than something that might actually be an issue in his relationship with the seemingly much more liberal Marisa. (The film implies that Marisa pushes Chris toward some more egalitarian social policies, but that’s not explored in any actual detail.)

Still, of all the rom-coms that have had to resolve a false identity storyline with one romantic lead forgiving the other, Maid In Manhattan finds perhaps the most ingenious impetus. Ty implores Chris to give his mom a second chance by arguing, “Even if someone lied, they should be forgiven. Otherwise, we’d never have any congressmen or presidents.” It’s hard for a politician to argue with that logic.

Maid In Manhattan isn’t as insightful about race as it is about class, though it does at least attempt to tackle the subject. There are racist undertones in the way narcissistic hotel guest Caroline Lane (a funny Natasha Richardson) patronizes Marisa and immediately tries to get her fired once she sees her as a rival for Chris’ affections. Meanwhile, Caroline’s friend Rachel (Amy Sedaris, funny but far broader than the rest of the movie) is even more overtly racist in the way she treats Marisa. Yet it’s also noticeable that Maid In Manhattan limits its depiction of racism to its comic relief antagonists rather than truly grappling with it as a force in Marisa’s life or exploring how race might be a factor in her relationship with Chris.

There are whole essays to be written about the complex ways in which Lopez’s career has intersected with race and ethnicity (this one by Baz Dreisinger is a good place to start). The Wedding Planner ignored Lopez’s Latina heritage to cast her as an Italian-American character. Other rom-coms have more subtly whitewashed or elided her race. To its credit, Maid In Manhattan casts the Puerto Rican actress as a Puerto Rican character, though, again, there’s the issue of it feeling stereotypical to cast a Latina woman as a maid. As with all things involving race and gender in Hollywood, the issue is complex, with no easy answers.

No matter how you slice it, Maid In Manhattan isn’t a perfect film. But as A.O. Scott put it in his review, “To its credit Maid In Manhattan, more than most films of its kind, does try to find a balance between realism and whimsy, to suggest connections between the fantasy it projects and the world as it is.” And Lopez is particularly deft at toeing the line between farce and realism in a way that makes her an incredibly appealing rom-com lead. Even when the film falters, Lopez is always funny, believable, and grounded. She has an ineffable quality that makes you root for her, which is the most important thing a rom-com lead needs to have and the hardest one to craft. (For all his enormous talents as an actor, Fiennes just doesn’t have it—at least not in this movie.) If Lopez has never quite made a rom-com that matches her talents, Maid In Manhattan probably comes the closest. And whether it’s in Second Act or something else, here’s hoping she gets the chance to truly hit the rom-com bullseye.

Next time: We dive into Asian rom-coms with the 2011 Hong Kong-Chinese film Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.