Maid in Manhattan
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 13 December 2002
rocks that I got
you scratch the surface of her records,
[there's] not much of anything there. But
there's no reason to do that. The surface
of her music is dazzling.
--Craig Marks, Music Editor, Blender
has great magnetism and an iconic quality.
I know is that I hope people are rooting for me this time.
Lopez can't forget to stay real. To her, it's like breathing.
Apparently, she doesn't want you to forget it either, given that she
keeps singing about it. The genius of this repetition is that it
makes the "real" seem (almost) real: you hear it enough,
it feels like, well, breathing.
if what's real for her and what's real for you aren't exactly the
same thing, the J. Lo version clearly has its appeal. Her
up-from-the-Bronx story has everything going for it, from early
desires (those shots of young Lopez in dance class that appear on Driven
suggest she once had an almost endearing vulnerability: she's so
energetic, so eager), to rapturous romances to tabloidish thrills.
the retelling, the story expands. As Diane Sawyer puts it,
"She's not just a star. She's a kind of supernova." And it
has inspired the J. Lo machine to monumental acts of imagination,
not to mention reiteration ("I'm still, I'm still...").
Recently, she's taken to dropping a realness-affirming single at the
same time she's appearing in broadly unreal romantic comedies. So,
for instance, she'll proclaim, "I'm Real" (in original and
remix versions), while starring in The Wedding Planner and
planning a marriage, say, to Cris Judd. (The record and movie opened
at the tops of their respective charts in 2001; the marriage did
year, Lopez is working the same combination, with the release of a
fourth album (This is Me... Then, selling 314,132 copies in
its first week: but who's counting?), a hit single ("Jenny From
the Block," featuring homegirl with very real-looking MCs
Jadakiss and Styles), a non-meltdown interview with Diane Sawyer
concerning her big pink diamond from the Sexiest Man Alive ("He
is my partner, he is my best friend"), and, of course, the
feel-goody Cinderella movie, Maid in Manhattan.
the marketing for the album included -- or morphed into -- marketing
for the movie and the marriage makes This Is Me... Then seem
almost anti-climatic. Still, it handles its business much like her
previous albums have done: it's pleasant and insubstantial, less
dancey than ballady this time, attributed to her so very sincere
love with La Ben (though her slender voice is hardly the sort to
manage big sound). Laced through with hiphop beats and dreamy
keyboard work, This is Me... Then is blithely out of touch,
because it can be. Her representation of a "real"
Jennifer, then or now, needn't expose anything beyond the wealth of
non-information (and gossip that passes as news and information)
that's already out there.
can be anything you need," Lopez coos at the end of "The
One" (which borrows concept, sound, and lyrics from "You
Are Everything"). And it's true, that is precisely what Lopez
can be, much as her first (and very smart) video, for "If You
Had My Love," narrated, with its emphasis on fantasy and
new CD comes with a mini-brochure for "Glow," her
"fresh, sexy, clean" fragrance-body lotion-shower gel
line, and that's pretty much what it feels like -- a means to sell
you something else, mostly, Lopez the Dream Girl. The tracks cover
limited thematic ground, mostly having to do with her inspiring new
romance. Both the deft opener, "Still," and the cover of
Carly Simon's "You Belong to Me" feature surprisingly airy
arrangements, with the elegant Omar Hakim on drums.
keeping with Lopez's penchant for profitable duets-with-rappers, the
album also includes a respectable duet with LL Cool J, "All I
Have," which they performed with earnest charm on the Today
Show last Friday (6 December), for the students at Kips Bay High
School, her alma mater. The kids loved the show, and no wonder: they
can almost imagine being Dream Girl, making the leap she's made,
with limited skills, ferocious determination, and an apparently
unshakable faith in herself. A little girl asked her,
"Jennifer, how important are family values to you?" Do you
wonder what she said? In fact, after affirming the value of family,
she recalled childhood details, sincerely: "I hated Spanish
music... All you ever ate was Puerto Rican food and... for variety,
you wanted something else. Can we have McDonald's? Can we have
pizza? Will you please make some spaghetti? You know what I
mean?" The kids nodded; they knew.
love songs are less sincere-seeming. Inspired by you-know-who, these
include "Loving You," "Baby I Love You," and
"Dear Ben," are syrupy-synthy declarations of foreverness,
the last with these lyrics: "I think God made you for me, / A
mix of passion and fidelity." You're happy for her, and for Ben
too, but the point's made already, more than once and in more than
again, again, Lopez has a gift for repetition. Still relatively new
to the industry's mega-echelons (as compared to Whitney Houston or
Mariah Carey), J. Lo has early on figured out how to use the
overexposure to her advantage. She's not fighting it, but rather,
turns it back around on the would-be invaders, who are, of course,
renowned for repetition. Feature writers and interviewers (print and
TV) like to rehearse her history, so public in its repetition:
"Fly Girl" to Selena to On the 6, as well as
her relationships, marriages to "waiter" Ojani Noa and
"choreographer" Judd, press-ready romance with Puffy, and
now, the engagement with Affleck.
lovely as Lopez appears in almost every public appearance -- is
there a star who smiles more readily for photographers? -- the
best-selling narratives remain the ones where she's a
"diva" demanding candles and 250-thread count sheets (and
recently, according to the Star, a pre-nup); a serial bride
(she's already been compared unfavorably to Liz Taylor); or a
selfish temptress: Noa dissed her in the New York Mirror (29
November 2002), claiming that she dumped him and will dump Affleck.
"Jennifer does what Jennifer wants," he says, "To
hell with anyone else."
response to this doubtless daunting coverage is actually admirably
calculated. She meets it head-on. When paparazzi beleaguered her
with the new beau (even more than they had with the others, save
Puffy), Jen and Ben took their own show to the media, holding hands,
smooching for cameras, and, in the video for "Jenny From the
Block," doing it all again to a beat. (She tells Sawyer on Primetime
Live, "A lot of times they catch us... They'll be across
the street and then we'll see them after and be like, is that a
camera across the street, underneath that car?") In MTV's Making
the Video, Affleck appeared frequently, hanging out on set as
well as performing as Ben Affleck for the video scenes that emulated
press harassment (the movie star swore that he wouldn't do another
music video: "They don't make any sense," he whined, and
he's right, but then, neither do most movies).
appears variously dressed and undressed, and everywhere --
introduced in her room, she's shot by a voyeuristic video camera,
suggesting that she's monitored even in her "private"
moments. The media vultures (not pictured here) shoot her through
windows, reading Inquisitor magazine, on the video set, on a
yacht, at the Barefoot Bar and Grill, at the gas station. Repeated
freeze frames suggest that the couple has little respite: every time
they turn around (and even when they don't), someone's snapping
their picture. Lopez knows how to play this game: she comes right
back with the sappiest of lyrics and the tritest of beats, just
daring you to forget the damn song.
phony, don't hate on me," Lopez sings. "What you get is
what you see." Now, you know that's not true: everything about
Lopez is coiffed, polished and perfected. But the video appears to
grant you views of the private, spontaneous Jennifer, juxtaposed
with the primped, shiny-bodied, and shopping Lopez. The fact that
these private images are "explicit" (with her naked
breasts blurred out for MTV consumers, and her topless sunbathing
and watery frolicking with Ben are framed as "playfully
seductive") briefly landed this video in the secondary press as
an object of titillation, and in the "dirty vs. degrading"
debate recently raised by MuchMusic (including, no surprise, Xtina's
vid for "Dirrty," as well as the usual hubbub over
Britney, Trina, Kim, et. al.).
very imprecision of this distinction -- dirty or degrading -- is
addressed by "Jenny From the Block," however obliquely.
The "morality" of display, of the difference between
private and public, is partly determined by the presumed producer
intentions (pornography intends stimulation; gallery art might not),
but it's more precisely a function of cultural anxiety. Lopez has
refined her design: she's at ease with her spectacular body and
offers just enough of it for view -- on magazine covers (in recent
months: Spanish language Maxim, Ladies Home Journal, Vanity Fair,
Latina, GQ, InStyle, Harpers Bazaar, Details), in videos, in
movies -- that she's repeatedly voted "Sexiest"
woman-latina-star-artist-body. She also claims to appreciate this
appreciation, giving props to what she calls "my public,"
by listing them, along with her life and God, as objects of her
genuine affection. Whether or not you believe her, the refrain of
"Jenny" -- "Used to have a little, now I have a lot,
/ No matter where I go, I know where I came from" -- underlines
the fantasy poles that mark her self-definition. She's real.
of all sorts gets another delirious go-round in Maid in Manhattan.
Based on a John Hughes story, written by Kevin (Working Girl,
Meet Joe Black) Wade and directed by Wayne Wang, this
"ethnic" modification of Pretty Woman-meets-Working
Girl uses the "iconic" Lopez strategically, that is,
referencing her fantasy self and her real self. With
not-so-clever-as-they-think-they-are in-jokes regarding her
beautiful behind, as well as insinuations as to her political savvy
(she knows where she came from), the film embraces the fantasy
wherein the working class Latina might crash the world of wealthy
white folks, bodaciously, on her own terms, and with some education
plays Marisa Ventura, dedicated single mom, proud Bronx native,
mostly respectful daughter, loyal friend. Every morning she rides
the bus to school with her son Ty (Tyler Garcia Posey, the kid
Arnold cozied up to in Collateral Damage), then takes the
subway to the Upper East Side, where she works as a maid at the
upscale Beresford Hotel.
in her form-fitting uniform, Marisa "strives to be
invisible" and treats guests with utmost care and attention to
detail. This sets up the film's basic Cultural Insight: rich,
"upstairs" people are vain and selfish, and
"downstairs" people -- including Marisa's maid-buddy
Stephanie (Marissa Matrone) and butler-father-figure Lionel (Bob
Hoskins) -- are earthy and compassionate. To illustrate: Marisa
"creatively" leaves a bundle of lavender on the pillow of
one notorious diva, but Caroline (Natasha Richardson) only tosses it
aside, distracted by a phone conversation about her favorite topic,
her own ridiculous love life.
moralized split is underlined by a raced one: the hotel clients and
managers (those with speaking parts, anyway) are white, and the
maids are mostly Latina, black, and Asian. This makes the
"us" and "them" dynamic more interesting to
think about than it is to watch, in that the film assumes viewers'
identification with the maids. This connection is somewhat mediated
by the fact that Marisa's best friends are simple stereotypes, for
instance, the lusty "big black mama," but their central
function is to boost Marisa. And she looks fabulous: diligent,
reliable, smart, and energetic.
real, of course: though she wants to apply for a management
position, she also knows that "maids" (however you
understand that term to resonate here, in terms of race or class)
are rarely moved up that particular ladder. When Stephanie submits
an application for her, their boss (Frances Conroy) sniffily agrees
that she just might make the grade, because "Anything is
Marisa's ambitions, this distinction between classes remains in
place until she meets the man of her dreams, a classically beautiful
scion of a wealthy political family and U.S. Senate candidate-to-be,
Chris Marshall (Ralph Fiennes). The crossing over is helped by the
fact that he walks in on Marisa while she's trying on Ms. Super
Snob's Dolce & Gabbana white wool suit, and mistakes her for
someone "like him."
said, Chris is also coded as a "rebel" who might consider
dating out of his class, when you see that he'd rather play with his
dog than adhere to the schedule set up by his nitty manager, Jerry
(Stanley Tucci, who has now, officially, played this type too
often). Chris is the cardboardiest of Prince Charmings, hanging onto
every word that Marisa utters concerning life in the projects
(because, she admits vaguely, she grew up around there, and besides,
he's plainly clueless and happy being so), resiliently unaware that
Marisa is lying to him for days and, once they share a blissful
night together, willing to marry her even when he learns of her
tiresomely, Marisa's service industry friends all aid in her
deception, dressing her in a gorgeous gown, matching slippers, and a
Harry Winston necklace for a ball (or, a fundraiser). Stephanie
sends her on her way, teary with delight: "For one night,
you're living it for all of us!"
the world of "Jenny From the Block," this is a serious,
vaguely honest reverie. Even if Lopez looks unreal, she really is
real. No matter the entourage, the super-duper mainstream fiancé,
or the diva rep, she knows where she came from. "Don't be
fooled by the rocks that I got," she sings. "I'm still,
I'm still Jenny from the block." She's living it for all of us.
Tyler Garcia Posey
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.