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(2002) (Jennifer Lopez, Ralph Fiennes) (PG-13)

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Romantic Comedy: A hotel maid has to decide what to do when a Senatorial candidate mistakes her for a well-to-do guest.
Marisa Ventura (JENNIFER LOPEZ) is a single mom who's trying to raise her 10-year-old son, Ty (TYLER GARCIA POSEY), as best as she can while holding down a job working as a maid at a swanky Manhattan hotel.

Working alongside fellow maid Stephanie Kehoe (MARISSA MATRONE), Marisa aspires to be a manager there one day, but is reluctant to file an application with her boss, Paula Burns (FRANCES CONROY), and the hotel's manager, John Bextrum (CHRIS EIGEMAN), when the position opens up.

After all, she's been trained, along with head butler Lionel Bloch (BOB HOSKINS) and the rest of the staff, that they should be invisible to the pampered guests, which includes socialite Caroline Lane (NATASHA RICHARDSON) and her friend Rachel Hoffberg (AMY SEDARIS). The maids wouldn't even dream of interacting with Chris Marshall (RALPH FIENNES), the dashing young politician who's in town with campaign manager Jerry Siegel (STANLEY TUCCI) while working on his Senate bid.

Yet, when Stephanie manages to convince Marisa to try on Caroline's expensive outfit that she's supposed to return to the store for her, Chris accidentally runs into her. Believing her to be a guest and mother to Ty who he's already met, Chris falls for both her beauty and her willingness to speak her mind. Not wanting to get fired for being caught in a guest's clothes, Marisa goes along with the ruse, even calling herself Caroline.

Much to Jerry's chagrin and the delight of the ever-present paparazzi, Chris takes an instant liking to Marisa and invites her to various events, completely unaware that "Caroline" is really Marisa. With mistaken identities crisscrossing paths, Marisa tries to tell Chris the truth, but for various reasons cannot. From that point on, she must decide whether leading her new fairy tale life is worth risking being found out by Chris or anyone else at the hotel.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
For reasons both understandable and inexplicable, various members of the female population seem to love the Cinderella tale and its various subsequent incarnations (such as "Pretty Woman" and "Ever After"). They and others also like or at least tolerate formulaic movies that are the cinematic equivalent of roller coasters.

By that, I mean that there are seemingly "perilous" hills and curves present but everything turns out okay and as expected in the end. For fans of both, such elements are readily on display in "Maid In Manhattan."

Screenwriter Kevin Wade ("Meet Joe Black," "Junior") and director Wayne Wang ("Anywhere But Here," "The Joy Luck Club") have made sure to include the requisite basics of both types of stories here to appease the film's target audience. There's the pretty but lowly central character, those who torment her in various ways, and the "prince" who comes to her rescue.

All play out within the specific parameters of this story, but there's never any doubt about what will happen from moment to moment, who will do what or how things will ultimately turn out. For some viewers that won't be a big deal and, in fact, many of them will welcome the comfortable familiarity. That said, the question that arises is how well the cast and crew play off and/or with such conventional and common material.

Well, the answer is that some of the moments work, but just as many or more don't. In the "ugly stepsister" and "prince" roles respectively, Jennifer Lopez ("Enough," "Angel Eyes") and Ralph Fiennes ("Red Dragon," "Sunshine") aren't half bad. They clearly make for an attractive couple, the chemistry between them is passable and they certainly don't embarrass themselves in their roles.

That said, they can't do much with their stereotypical characters as they've been written. She's the caring, loving and hard-working single mom who wants more from life but is hesitant to go after it. Meanwhile, he's the smooth talking, charismatic and idealistic young politico who falls for her beauty and penchant for speaking her mind.

In other words, they're characters or composites of others thereof who we've seen countless times before. Again, some will like that aspect, while others will find it tired and contrived. They're like real, flesh and blood people, however, when compared to most of the other characters who are cliché-ridden caricatures at best.

Tyler Garcia Posey ("Collateral Damage") has a few decent if precocious and "Sleepless in Seattle" type moments playing the wise beyond his years boy. The likes of Natasha Richardson ("The Parent Trap," "Nell"), Stanley Tucci ("Road to Perdition," "Big Trouble") and Marissa Matrone (making her feature film debut), however, are disappointing in their exaggerated and/or stereotypical roles that are obviously designed to entertain less discerning viewers.

The talented Bob Hoskins ("Last Orders," "Enemy at the Gates") also shows up playing the wise head butler who doesn't say much but delivers wisdom-filled nuggets when he does. Unfortunately, he's pretty much wasted and appears uncomfortable appearing in the role.

As far as how the plot deals with all of them, they're either present to assist or foil the protagonist's efforts. Yet, that's where the film fails the most, as she's far more of a reactive rather than proactive sort of character. Most of the time she's trying to turn down Chris' requests and attention to her, while hiding from those who could finger her ruse.

While that provides for some comedic potential - including the obligatory close calls where she hides herself in various ways - it's more amusing than funny. Wayne and company simply don't do much with the material that we haven't seen before, and they take a long time in getting the plot moving. That's also problematic since we know where it's going and the wait robs the film of precious momentum and makes things drag far too much at the beginning.

Filled with exaggerated but unfunny performances, an overly manipulative score and other genre conventions such as the obligatory "separate ways" music montage (and there are two here), the film might appease those Cinderella fanatics. Nevertheless, the numerous faults and rather mediocre to bland execution of the story results in this effort turning back into a pumpkin without any chances at finding the right glass slipper fit. "Maid in Manhattan" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed December 7, 2002 / Posted December 13, 2002

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