A colleague teased me for my flip answer to what I like about Maid in Manhattan. My answer? "Jennifer Lopez's cute little ears."
"I'm gonna be wondering about your aesthetics," she said, laughing. But I'll always concede that I'm a sucker for movies that showcase effortless charm, even when the vehicle is flawed. While Wayne Wang doesn't do for Lopez what Steven Soderbergh did in Out of Sight, the often-indie Hong Kong-born veteran still brings an unlikely combination of romance and working class-verisimilitude to what could have been just another Pretty Woman wannabe. Lopez is a chambermaid at a ritzy New York hotel (the Waldorf-Astoria under another name); a series of contrivances lead her into romance with the dryly patrician politician Ralph Fiennes. The side characters are notable, as in a Preston Sturges ensemble, bringing their own weight to what would otherwise be a weightless fantasy. Stanley Tucci is good timing personified as Fiennes' advisor; Bob Hoskins is admirable as a butler who shepherds Lopez's ambitions; and a nutty cameo by Amy Sedaris as a too-tan society ninny is a hoot.
At a recent press screening, I ask Wang if Lopez has the stuff to do work beyond wish fulfillment, class-empowerment fantasies.
"I hope she takes some chances and does some really great roles. I think she's got the chops for it. That's where she needs to go, rather than just keep playing the stuff that the studios want her to do," says Wang. "Maybe this is talking about me more than about her, but I'm trying to drag myself back to doing Asian films, too. I loved [Jennifer in] Mi Familia, Selena. There's gotta be a great role for a Latin woman that gives her something substantial."
The conversation shifts to Wang's other projects.
"For me, I'm also trying to get back to something that's really Asian. I'm having a hard time, I've been working on it for years. I have a wonderful script, but I can't get financed." So what about his adaptation of David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day, I wonder.
"I'm getting closer. That one's interesting. Oddly enough, with that book being so popular and David selling out across the country, I'm having a hard time financing that. The film world is very, very safe. This is a bad time for independents."
Maid in Manhattan was a big surprise for Wang, especially right on the heels of his critically acclaimed Silicon Valley drama Center of the World.
"I wanted to work with a big movie again. After Center of the World, I couldn't get arrested! The reviews astonished me. I learned more about the critics and all their hang-ups. In the middle of the big computer boom in Silicon Valley, I was in the middle of all these kids who were in more of a romantic comedy than this by 500 times. They thought the whole world was at their fingertips, at the keyboard."
Ralph Fiennes, so often cast as dark and damaged, also seems like an unlikely choice. "He had a lot of trepidation," Wang recalls. "He says, 'I don't know how to do a romantic comedy,' I said, 'I don't either!' So that's why we get along." And Wang is off on one of his regularly scheduled disarming giggles. "We said, let's treat this as a drama, y'know. Let's not think about it as a romantic comedy, let's think about the characters, let's think about the situation, make the dialogue real and go from there. But he's actually very loose and good in a romantic comedy, I think. He underestimates himself."
Speaking of romance, Wang addresses the gorgeously produced and lit romantic consummation in a hotel room that's simultaneously luxe and almost comic in its extravagance. "Those are the hardest scenes, to sell the fantasy and sell the romanticism of it," Wang remarks. It's an ultra-chaste scene, especially in contrast to Wang's previous endeavor.
"The interesting thing was that we shot some pretty hot love scenes and they all got cut out. In the previews, the audience didn't want it. They wanted the fairy tale. They just wanted them to fall in love and love each other, but they didn't want to look at it!"
Maid in Manhattan has a lush twinkle to it far removed from the DV smear of Center of the World. "I still love film. But I also like digital because it's artificial. And it's easier to work with. It's fast. I like them both. I hope that both can exist.