Jennifer Lopez: Tough, straight-shooting single mother from the Bronx with dreams of upward mobility, scraping by as a maid at an uptown hotel. Ralph Fiennes: Dashing state assemblyman and would-be playboy in the JFK Jr. mold, who's just looking for the right woman, whether she fits into his senatorial profile or not. With a Cinderella pairing this by-the-numbers, what reason remains to actually see Maid In Manhattan, a romantic comedy so generic that it might as well be numbered for archival purposes? One possible reason would be the presence of director Wayne Wang, the highly regarded indie stalwart behind such films as Chan Is Missing and Smoke; Wang's textured feeling for the city promises to bring some new flavor to an old formula. But beyond a halfhearted attempt at class critique, Wang loses himself in an old-fashioned script that tries to recall the classic screwball ensembles of Golden Age Hollywood, but lacks the cascading wit to pull it off. Confined mainly to the stifling hallways and suites of a high-end hotel, the film hinges on one of those simple misunderstandings that drag out far longer than logic, reason, or patience would dictate. In a rare moment of weakness, Lopez lets another maid coax her into trying on a guest's $5,000 Dolce suit just as Fiennes happens to enter the room. The outfit belongs to snooty socialite Natasha Richardson, but when Lopez and Fiennes hit it off, Lopez assumes Richardson's identity and extends the charade as far as it will go, if only to play out a fantasy about how the other half lives. With the tabloid paparazzi and an overzealous campaign manager (Stanley Tucci) watching his every move, Fiennes tries to pursue Lopez in the media spotlight, but questions about his mystery woman's identity threaten to unravel her thin scheme. Included in the mix is Lopez's outrageously precocious 10-year-old son (Tyler Posey), whose obsession with politics and culture during the Nixon years doesn't stop him from committing Fiennes' entire voting record to memory. Timed to coincide with Lopez's pop single "Jenny From The Block," Maid In Manhattan doesn't work as a film, but it's a savvy piece of celebrity image-making, returning the megastar to the earthier working-class roots of the Bronx. The glossy facelift isn't believable for a second, but at least it's more compelling than the turgid hijinks at the hotel, which lack the crack timing and rat-a-tat dialogue of the great '30s comedies Wang labors so strenuously to imitate. More than ever, Lopez needs a movie to confirm her early promise as an actress capable of losing her persona in character. Right now, she's become something far more calculated and remote: a star.
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