It’s December 2002. Barely a year has passed since 9/11. George W. Bush has just given a speech about “faith-based initiatives” at a Marriott in Philadelphia, in the same year Donald Rumsfeld uttered the phrase “There are known knowns.” And in movie theaters across America, Ralph Fiennes is playing a Republican politician somebody wants to have sex with.
But not just anybody — Jennifer Lopez. In Maid in Manhattan, Lopez plays Marisa Ventura, a maid working at an old-money Manhattan hotel who tries on a rich woman’s Dolce & Gabbana coat and accidentally tricks Fiennes’s Christopher Marshall, an assemblyman thinking about running for U.S. Senate, into falling in love with her. And here’s the bonkers part: She loves him back. Even though she is Jennifer Lopez and he wears those horrible gray balloon dress pants cinched with a brown belt that were favored by finance bros up until about 2012. What I am trying to tell you is that Maid in Manhattan is a surreal fantasia that achieves the (at least currently) impossible by managing to convince its audience of the allure of a balloon-pants-wearing Republican.
At the time of the film’s release, though, the critical consensus was rather myopic and uncharitable. If you ignored the context (i.e., the entirety of political and fashion history), you could conceivably describe Maid in Manhattan as nothing more than a perversion of the Cinderella story. Time, for example, named it one of the “Top 10 Worst Chick Flicks,” and the BBC called it “asinine.” Roger Ebert, one of Maid in Manhattan’s only non-detractors, carefully called it “not dumb,” adding, “We go to the movies for many reasons, and one of them is to see attractive people fall in love. This is not shameful.”
I would note that we also go to the movies to witness and engage with the supernatural from a safe distance. Here is an incomplete list of things that happen in Maid in Manhattan that are wholly inexplicable yet are played so straightforwardly that you forget to think, Wait, this is insane. Fiennes’s politician — who, again, is a local assemblyman not even elected to the Senate — cannot shake off the paparazzi, who hound him with the sort of fervor usually reserved for young British royals. He’s on the cover of the New York Post simply because he walks his dog with a woman in sunglasses. His private conversations are videotaped and played on NY1. And yet he does not appear to have a press secretary. His PR requests are instead filtered through his long-suffering assistant, played with The Devil Wears Prada bitchiness by Stanley Tucci.
Elsewhere, Marisa’s 10-year-old son (Tyler Posey) is insatiably obsessed with Richard Nixon and solemnly says things like “I’ll make like a baby and head out first.” Natasha Richardson plays a socialite named Caroline Lane who, despite being beautiful and rich and Natasha Richardson, is presented as undatable and desperate. Marisa appears to invent the concept of charitable galas while visiting the zoo. A child is allowed to borrow a vintage Harry Winston necklace.
But Maid in Manhattan never floats so far into the ether as to lose oxygen entirely. Little pieces of reality manage to sneak in, reminding us that this film is, at least ostensibly, taking place in our dimension. There are surprisingly intelligent, if brief, meditations on upward mobility, race, and the complexities of mother-daughter relationships. Marisa’s son has at least one homework assignment unrelated to Nixon. Dolce & Gabbana’s return policy is addressed more than once. Characters worry about wearing all white outdoors in Manhattan. Amy Sedaris, playing Caroline’s cartoonishly racist friend Rachel Hoffberg, visibly sweats while doing Pilates. These details trick us into forgetting we just watched an assemblyman give a hotly anticipated press conference about how a maid lied to him about being rich. And if you focus hard enough on Fiennes’s blue eyes, it is possible to temporarily disregard his balloon pants.
In this way, Maid in Manhattan poses a lightly unsettling existential question: What if we could take a mop and a broom to all the bad parts of 2002 New York, then artfully rearrange what was left? It’s a marriage between the fantastic and Fantastik, an escapist farce, a 105-minute visit to a high-rise luxury suite just deep-cleaned by Jennifer Lopez. You don’t want to live there — it doesn’t feel like home, and honestly, it’s a little bit creepy — but it’s nice to lie down for a while.
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