Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: While David Wain rips into the conventions of the modern romantic comedy with They Came Together, we recommend a few unlikely gems of the genre.

Maid In Manhattan (2002)

What happens when a movie commits to fluff? No one would call Maid In Manhattan a profound movie; it’s a featherweight fairy tale in which a hotel maid romances a politician who mistakes her for a socialite. And yet the movie has integrity, or at least something close to it. It’s a Jennifer Lopez vehicle from back when that still meant something, a seemingly director-proof rom-com distinguished by bursts of elegant direction.

The plot is pure Cinderella, with single mom Marisa (Lopez) meeting Prince Charming in the form of Senate candidate Chris Marshall (Ralph Fiennes, back when he looked kind of like Bradley Cooper). There’s even a Fairy Godmother in the form of fellow maid Stephanie (Marissa Matrone). There is also, surprisingly, an authentic sense of character and milieu.

There’s an old film critic line about how the most subversive thing a Hollywood movie can do is show people working. Maid In Manhattan isn’t remotely subversive, but it is uncommonly conscious about class and work. The movie goes to lengths to establish what it’s like to work at the bottom of the hotel industry. The opening stretch lays out Marisa’s day, beginning at her apartment and following her as she readies her son for school, loads him on the bus, and heads to work. She comes in through the service entrance, picks up her uniform, changes in the locker room, and joins the other maids at a daily morning meeting with the management.

Most movies would handle this as a montage; here it plays out gradually, with each step forming its own scene. 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 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.

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That’s integrity—the thing filmmakers do because they feel compelled to, not because they have to. Modern rom-coms tend to be sloppy, because sloppy movies make just as much money as sharp ones. Maid In Manhattan, on the other hand, is defined by its thoughtful use of wide-screen space, fluid camera movements, and an overqualified supporting cast (including Bob Hoskins and Chris Eigeman, both perfectly cast in small roles). They give the movie a sense of depth and style that’s all the more enjoyable because it’s unnecessary. Come for the wish-fulfillment, stay for the background pleasures.

Availability: Maid In Manhattan is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, or to rent or purchase through the major digital services.

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