2002 was a bumper year for romcoms. Banking on the commercial safety of a saccharine love story, studios splashed out on everything from the Nick Hornby adaptation About A Boy to Gurinder Chadha’s Hounslow tale Bend It Like Beckham, Sandra Bullock facing off against corporate shill Hugh Grant in Two Weeks Notice, matrimonial romp My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Reese Witherspoon’s nostalgic Sweet Home Alabama, to name just a few titles.
This was a golden age for will-they-won’t-they tales set to the backdrop of the new millennium, burgeoning digital literacy and predictable scripts that ensured that they, in fact, always did. Nestled amongst these releases was a critically derided, commercially dominating cultural relic: Maid In Manhattan.
The film stars Jennifer Lopez as a maid working in a luxury Manhattan hotel, who finds herself falling for a senatorial candidate (Ralph Fiennes) – who in turn has a soft spot for Richard Nixon – via a farcical case of mistaken identity. Lopez keeps up with her adopted, socialite guise until her secret is revealed and much hand-wringing ensues. Fiennes ultimately decides that her lowly status as a maid is good enough for him; he can share his wealth anyway. Over the closing credits we see that Fiennes has won his seat and Lopez has now transitioned from maid to an employer of maids.
Lopez was at the height of her popularity and power when the film was released, having broken through with the title role in Selena in 1997, then played alongside George Clooney in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, before starring in hit The Wedding Planner with Matthew McConaughey, as well as reaching number one in the US charts with her second album J.Lo – a nickname coined by director Oliver Stone on the set of his 1997 film U Turn. Lopez’s money-making credentials were solid. Fiennes, meanwhile, brought an outsized theatrical gravitas to his role, following Oscar-nominated turns in Schindler’s List and The English Patient.
From the lofty, hindsighted position of this century’s increasing political turmoil and structural inequality, their pairing in the film now becomes an excellent satire on new millennium naivety – an attempt to shoehorn fairytale tropes into an unruly and unbalanced modern society.
In the film’s moral universe, the only place for women of colour is in the bowels of the hotel, performing menial work, and the only way one of the more ambitious of their ranks, Lopez, can progress is by mistakenly posing as a white socialite and ultimately romancing her way out of her social class. Above all, Fiennes is implicitly praised for his willingness to elevate her into his ranks, to be seen with someone like a brown maid in public. And in the film’s climactic scene, Lopez’s son argues that his mother should be given a second chance, making a clumsy comparison to rehabilitating Nixon after his impeachment in the process. If nothing else, we know by now that impeachment should not be so easily glossed over …
Even the film’s poster is absurd. Lopez sits on a bench in front of the Manhattan skyline in her maid’s uniform – a visual signifier of her servitude – while she daydreams in an infantilised pose an image floating in the sky of her in a diamond necklace flanked by Fiennes, him showing more than a glimpse of his future turn as Voldemort through an unnerving smirk.
With the hindsight, too, of Lopez’s scene-stealing turn in 2019’s Hustlers, here we see her acting chops in embryonic form, while the supporting cast props her up in impressive fashion. The late Bob Hoskins provides paternal authority as butler Lionel, Stanley Tucci is on reliably camp form as Fiennes’ adviser Jerry and the late Natasha Richardson is the gleefully villainous socialite Caroline Lane. All the while Fiennes holds court as the smiling, yet ominously ambitious senatorial candidate.
In a year of popular romcoms that at least attempted to incorporate the nuances of reality – immigrant experiences in Bend It Like Beckham and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, depression in About A Boy, southern anachronism in Sweet Home Alabama – Maid in Manhattan stands out as a curious, absurdist fairytale. It deserves another watch because of its fantastic ignorance to the context of its making. It is the unexpected death knell of the romanticised American dream onscreen; it is the last gasp of old-fashioned romcom idealism in a different world. It tells us, in the most glowing of terms, that you can’t hope to work your way into a better life any more, that in fact the odds are so stacked against you if you are a single, working-class mother that all you can hope for is a chance, mistaken encounter to be swept off your feet. And then, you too can become a profiteering business owner, enacting the means of your own subjugation on those less fortunate. Happily ever after, indeed.
Maid in Manhattan in available on Starz in the US and to rent in the UK