Maid in Manhattan (2002)

I can’t forget to stay real.
To me it’s like breathing.
— Jennifer Lopez, “Jenny From the Block”

The video for Jennifer Lopez’s new single, “I’m Glad,” features a visual “cover” of Flashdance. She appears welding, dancing on a judges’ table, dancing in a club, and wearing the famous torn sweatshirt off her shoulder, just like Jennifer Beals. Word is that Lopez likes the look because it says something about coming up from the bottom, pursuing your dreams, and being tough. No one would argue that Lopez has made good on all these ideas. It’s equally clear that Lopez has made a lucrative habit of reprising that story — her story, as she tells it — in most of her fictional incarnations.

Just released by Columbia on DVD, Maid in Manhattan may be the sweetest version of that story yet. 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. She 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.

Though she is stunning in her form-fitting uniform, Marisa ostensibly “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 trivial love life.

This 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.

And 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 possible.”

Whatever 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.”

That said, Chris is also coded as a bit of a “rebel” who might consider dating out of his class (or even speaking out of it), 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). 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 (at the hotel where she works but where she could never afford to stay, all soft light lovely silhouettes, underlined by Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me”), willing to marry her even when he learns of her elaborate deception.

More 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 movie is surely aware of all these meta-fictional angles, with the couple’s inevitable reconciliatory kiss appearing on tv so all the hotel staff can cheer it, and the marriage reported in People magazine, with the cover caption, “Maid in Manhattan.” The coda that indicates their perfect merger of a marriage is then offered up in a series of other magazine covers, with Newsweek reporting that Chris will be making a link between “politics” and the working class” (thanks to his schooling by wifey), and she appears on the cover of Hotel Management, right to the top of her chosen profession.

In 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.” The DVD features a link to Revolution Studios’ “Maid in Manhattan Style” site, where you check a “fascinating behind the scenes shopping experience.” And just so, you can experience her “living it” for you too.