romantic comedy

Maid in Manhattan (2002)

Sometimes you come across a bad movie at the right time and, despite knowing better, still find it enjoyable. It’s happened to all of us, and Maid in Manhattan is one that caught me unawares on a lazy Saturday afternoon. A lifeless, predictable romance, if we’re being honest, this movie nevertheless wormed its way into the edges of my heart. It’s not exactly a romantic comedy, though it does have its stock of absurd characters and situations, but I liked Wayne Wang’s quiet direction, which was content to let the story hum steadily along.

The movie still depends on wacky, blown-up moments that pivot the action from one point to the next. Marisa Ventura (Jennifer Lopez), a maid in the rich people’s floor in a fancy Manhattan hotel, is a devoted single mother with aspirations of joining management. When her friend convinces her to try on a guest’s discarded Dolce and Gabbana, she catches the eye of Chris Marshall (Ralph Fiennes), a state assemblyman with aspirations of joining the U.S. Senate. He mistakes Marisa for Caroline Lane (Natasha Richardson), whose room she is cleaning, and they go out for a walk. Unable to stop this train, she continues the deception, much to Chris’s confusion when the real Caroline shows up at a private lunch.

Anyone who’s seen a romance knows where this is heading and how it will work itself out. The movie doesn’t get its fuel from its original storytelling but in part from the charisma of its supporting characters. The actors ham it up, exaggerating the drama just so. Richardson has the most fun with her role and teases the clueless, British Caroline. Stanley Tucci also makes an impression as Chris’s dry chief of staff, ever on guard for media stories that may threaten the Senate campaign. Others have roles that aren’t as juicy, a young Tyler Posey as Marisa’s politically obsessed son and Bob Hoskins as the avuncular head butler, for example, but they stand out for their sincerity.

The real weak link is the lead characters. It isn’t so much that Lopez and Fiennes are bad but that they have no chemistry. In fact, I easily fell for Marisa’s flinty personality and Chris’s wayward Republican attempt to see past himself. But the two act at each other, both characters earnestly in love with someone, just not the someone in front of them. Marisa makes a dynamic first impression on Chris because of the way she looks, but his continued devotion to her is puzzling, predicated on the fact that she will tell it like it is while his staff are all too eager to shield him from any hint of controversy. Likewise, she’s smitten, but since she always ends up lecturing him about the working class, what’s the attraction?

Besides making for a frustrating romance, this lack of clarity also raises questions of how race, class, and gender are portrayed. That the Latino girl moves up thanks to the generosity of the dashing white guy is just one of the concerns. Marisa is never really more than the maid who makes good, something that is emphasized most clearly in the closing scene when her name and photo are splashed across magazines and newspapers. Even after she strikes out on her own, she is always presented in relation to her former job or her partner. Once a maid in Manhattan, always a maid in Manhattan.

Released: 2002
Prod: Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Paul Schiff, Deborah Schindler
Dir: Wayne Wang
Writer: Kevin Wade
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Stanley Tucci, Tyler Posey, Marissa Matrone, Amy Sedaris, Bob Hoskins
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

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Made in America (1993)

Made in America, a film about surprising discoveries, manages one of its own. The first half plays like a manic comedy, something along the lines of star Whoopi Goldberg’s performances in Ghost and Sister Act, but the second half dials back the energy and settles into a thoughtful romance, one that takes advantage of Goldberg and Ted Danson’s considerable and real-life chemistry.

But it takes awhile to see that, and the first hour of the movie is wasted on establishing the lead characters as opposing stereotypes. Goldberg plays Sarah Matthews, the fiery owner of a black bookstore, The African Queen, and mother to Zora (Nia Long), a star science student. Danson’s character, Hal Jackson, has an equally loud personality but is a used car salesman with a penchant for cowboy get-ups and acrobatic sex partners. The two come together when Zora finds out, via a blood typing assignment, that Sarah’s deceased husband is not her father and that she was conceived via mystery sperm. After asking her friend Tea Cake (Will Smith) to help break into the sperm bank, she learns that her biological father is none other than Hal.

What follows is endless hysterics, granted much of it justified, from all three characters. Zora can’t get over her mother’s deception and the fact that she is half white, Sarah is aghast that her requested donor, an intelligent black man, ended up being a hee-haw showboat, and Hal doesn’t know how to handle the sudden intrusion of two black women into his life. The scandal is dominated by race and ensuing questions of identity, but any nuanced examination of this is overshadowed by a misguided attempt at physical comedy. This newfound reality creates its own fireworks, but the movie decides it needs to throw in a circus to draw out the humor. There are literally a bunch of circus animals parading around, all in the service of Hal’s daffy television ads, and I wish they’d traded the dancing elephant and monkey for some tamer conversation scenes.

It’s apparent how unnecessary this noisy clash of personalities is when the story finally quiets down, and that’s when the movie starts to do something special. Once Sarah and Hal shed their comic exteriors, you suddenly see two very real people inhabiting these roles, two deliberating adults trying to make sense of this confusion. It’s delightful watching Goldberg and Danson together. Rather than broad, showy gestures, they allow their relationship to reveal itself in details, like the way Sarah holds her gaze at Hal after a first date and the way he kisses her. It leaves you longing for more, both from the couple and from movie relationships in general.

Long contributes a great deal to this chemistry too. She gives Zora a tenacious spirit worthy of an MIT-bound student but also a vulnerability of a young woman who wants and needs her parents in her life. I also liked Smith’s performance, which didn’t carry as much emotional weight as the others but still proved to be inspired comic relief. It’s no wonder things worked out for the young star.

The strong cast allows you to make an investment with a good payoff in the end, but I can’t help but think about how this movie plays out in 2017, some twenty-five years after its release. The electricity and honesty of Goldberg and Danson’s middle-aged, interracial relationship is still a rarity, and as surprised as I was to see it in this time capsule of a film, I was reminded at how surprised I would be to see that portrayed in any movie today. There are other more questionable eyebrow-raising moments though. Despite Hal’s connection to Sarah, he is bold enough to use their brief and tenuous history to suggest taking certain liberties with her on their first night out. It’s presumptuous and offensive. A pair of elderly white ladies who visit Sarah’s shop also make an impression, though not a good one. In what’s supposed to be a jab at their ignorance on the history of white racism – they claim to have “had no idea we’d done so many awful things,” the humor and mockery doesn’t register. Instead, it amplifies the shocking sense of privilege that contributes to the racism we continue to experience.

Released: 1993
Prod: Arnon Milchan, Michael Douglas, Rick Bieber
Dir: Richard Benjamin
Writer: Marcia Brandwynne, Nadine Schiff, Holly Goldberg Sloan
Cast: Whoopi Goldberg, Ted Danson, Nia Long, Will Smith, Jennifer Tilly
Time: 111 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (2016)

My Big Fat Greek Wedding hit like a tidal wave in 2002, a romantic comedy that began in the distant horizon as a one-woman play before it swelled into a $360 million behemoth and crashed into box offices unawares. Fourteen years later, writer and star Nia Vardalos tries for a second big splash but winds up with a sequel that never gains momentum.

The original story focused on Toula’s (Vardalos) need, or rather her father’s need for her, to get married, specifically to a nice Greek man. She did, though that nice Greek man turned out to be a decidedly non-Greek John Corbett. Now one existential crisis gives way to another as Toula and Ian’s (Corbett) teenage daughter, Paris (Elena Kampouris), prepares for college, and Toula wrestles with an empty nest and a sparkless marriage. Her troubles are compounded by her parents’ (Michael Constantine and Lainie Kazan) discovery that they were never officially married, and unable to live in sin, they make arrangements for another wedding. Vardalos finds conflict where there isn’t any; after fifty years together, you’d think a second wedding would be mere formality, but Toula’s mother takes the opportunity to attack her supposed husband for his insincerity and a half century of grievances.

The movie vacillates between these storylines with a harried Toula being the one constant. Her awkwardness slides into desperation though as she tries to keep her daughter close at hand. A college fair for Paris turns out to be a family affair when Toula tells a relative, and they all take turns convincing her to stay in Chicago and bullying a representative from Northwestern. Scenes like these feel forced, an effort to match or even top the madness of the first film. But too often, the movie just reverts to old jokes. You’ve literally seen it all before: Windex will fix anything and every word in any language can be traced to its Greek origins. Before, there was charm in the quirkiness and specificity of Toula’s Greek family, despite diving into clichés about immigrants and cross-cultural marriages. The novelty wears off the second time around, and even the father’s insistence that he is a direct descendent of Alexander the Great seems like overkill.

Likewise, the family reunion isn’t necessary, nice as it is to see everyone back together. Toula has enough going on that she doesn’t need a chorus of loud cousins and noisy kids backing her up. Most of the characters aren’t given much to do anyway; cousin Nikki’s big moment is setting everyone’s hair on the wedding day and cousin Angelo is there to announce he’s gay. Even Ian is an afterthought, pleasant as ever but used more as a placeholder than the main man in Toula’s life. There’s no fire to heat their strained marriage for better or worse, and the one relationship that could have enriched the sequel, between Toula and her aging parents, doesn’t dig deeply enough into the children as caretakers dynamic.

Released: 2016
Prod: Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson
Dir: Kirk Jones
Writer: Nia Vardalos
Cast: Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Elena Kampouris, Lainie Kazan, Michael Constantine, Andrea Martin, Louis Mandylor, Gia Carides, Gerry Mendicino, Joey Fatone, Alex Wolff, John Stamos, Rita Wilson
Time: 94 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

New Year’s Eve (2011)

new-years-eve

I hate to start out the new year on such a cynical note, but New Year’s Eve leaves me no choice. A follow up to director Garry Marshall’s 2010 schlock Valentine’s Day, this inflated ensemble piece wants you to believe that the last day of the year is one of high drama, a time when we confront our hopes and fears so that we can come to some great truth and do right by it. My experience tells me something else, that come December 31, most of us just want to have a good time and get drunk or lounge around and order a pizza.

It’s manufactured sentimentality around a day that has the dumb luck of being the last one on the calendar. Borrowing on the Love Actually formula, the movie hurls a dozen different stories at its audience, hoping that one will stick. That they all connect in the loosest way possible is supposed to make the whole charade seem meaningful. It’s not. Instead, we get a jumbled mess of half-tales, broken bits of story that don’t form any cohesive picture even though all the action circles back to the Times Square ball drop. The emotional highpoint comes during a televised press conference, which tells you a lot about where things are heading.

Hilary Swank plays the woman whose job it is to make Times Square’s famed New Year’s celebrations goes off without a hitch. She’s enlisted monoymous superstar Jensen (sometimes monoymous Bon Jovi) to draw in crowds, but he’s more interested in wooing his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Heigl) than in belting out hits. She confides in her friends (Sofia Vergara and Russell Peters), and it’s funny because they have accents. Meanwhile, Jensen’s backup singer (Lea Michele) is stuck in an elevator with some guy who hates the holidays (Ashton Kutcher), and his bike messenger roommate (Zac Efron) spends the day helping a mousy assistant (Michelle Pfeiffer) complete her resolutions. Roommate’s sister (Sarah Jessica Parker) wants to stay home with her rebellious teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) but may nip out for her standing date with a mystery stranger (Josh Duhamel) from last New Year’s. A few blocks away, a cranky old man (Robert De Niro) refuses to die until he sees the ball drop from the hospital roof. In the maternity ward, two couples (Seth Meyers, Jessica Biel, Til Schweiger, and Sarah Paulson) compete to push out the first baby and win lots of money.

If this seems like nothing more than a hurried summary, you’re not far off the mark; this is about as deep as any of these storylines get. I liked the dynamic between Efron and Pfeiffer’s character, though the story could be tightened – what kind of resolution is “to be amazed” – and obviously lengthened, and I also thought that Halle Berry gave a strong, understated performance as nurse to De Niro’s character. But as I sat through all this traffic, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was atoning for the past year’s sins. The most agonizing part was watching the two soon-to-be parents undermining each other, and their own health, just to claim a big check. It was like they had wandered off the set of an entirely different movie, which is what I recommend everyone watch instead.

Released: 2011
Prod: Samuel J. Brown, Michael Disco, Toby Emmerich
Dir: Garry Marshall
Writer: Katherine Fugate
Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer,  Zac Efron, Robert De Niro, Halle Berry, Cary Elwes, Alyssa Milano, Common, Jessica Biel, Seth Meyers, Sarah Paulson, Til Schweiger, Carla Gugino, Katherine Heigl, Jon Bon Jovi, Sofia Vergara, Russell Peters, Ashton Kutcher, Lea Michele, Sarah Jessica Parker, Abigail Breslin, Jake T. Austin, Josh Duhamel, Cherry Jones, Hilary Swank, Ludacris, Ryan Seacrest
Time: 117 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

The Spirit of Christmas (2015)

spirit-of-christmas

So did I just watch a Lifetime Christmas movie about a woman who falls in love with a ghost – and enjoy it? I think I did, because despite its cheesy title and premise, The Spirit of Christmas hits my holiday sweet spot. It’s not a great movie by any means and there are some abrupt character changes that only serve to move the plot along, but generally it embraces what it is – a TV Christmas mystery-romance for a female audience.

The story moves back and forth between the present, where lawyer Kate Jordan (Jen Lilley) is trying to get a haunted inn appraised and sold before the holidays, and the past, where events unfold that lead to Daniel Forsythe’s (Thomas Beaudoin) untimely death. Ultimately, the flashbacks function as speedy exposition, and the scenes aren’t that long or intrusive.

The movie starts in the early 1920s with Daniel standing at a distance from the great house and spying his beloved, Lilly (Kati Salowsky), before being violently struck down. In a flash, it’s nearly 100 years later and his life and death are nothing more than an unsolved mystery to be gossiped about by the townspeople, all of whom are convinced his ghost is haunting his former residence. The only person who isn’t too bothered by spirit-Daniel is Rafferty (Robert Walsh), the inn’s manager. But out of deference to Mr. Forsythe, he always closes down twelve days before Christmas, when Daniel resumes his semi-human form. (Just go with it.)

Enter Kate, a driven lawyer who is as great at her job as she is bad at romance. To put it in perspective, she’s about to be promoted to associate. Her primary concern is to sell the inn, but when she meets Daniel, she also wants to help him solve his own death since becoming a ghost apparently causes memory loss. If she can do that, maybe he can cross over, and maybe she can sell the inn. Love only comes later, when they both realize they’re a pair of lost souls.

It’s all nonsense by definition, but it’s also different from all the other cookie cutter plots out there. We may not need this movie, but we certainly don’t need more about being a Christmas princess or getting stranded en route to the man who’s obviously wrong for you. The story is engaging and well paced, and though it’s all well trod territory, it still feels fresh. The mystery is enhanced by the double timeline and a knowledge of the Volstead Act, which you’ll recall from tenth grade history concerns Prohibition and thus bootlegging.

The most rewarding thing about this movie though are its well written characters and the cast that gives them life. Oh, and the gorgeous New England inn. The supporting roles are stronger than expected, and I found myself liberally doling out sympathy cards to everyone from Rafferty to a doughy kid from Daniel’s past. Lilley brings energy and optimism to her part but is much better when sharing screen time with her costar. She and Beaudoin have an easy chemistry and play well off each other despite their characters coming from two different time periods. And as for Beaudoin, well, I guess I’m saving the best for last. Ill tempered and gruff yet compassionate and sensitive to Kate’s worries, the actor as Daniel might as well have stepped out from some fantasy world. Looking like an extreme hipster, he balances his character’s misplaced, misfit personality with deft and humor. I love the way four syllable words no longer in use just roll off his tongue and his exasperation when he moans, “The modern woman’s forward nature when it comes to courtship leaves me off-put and deeply envious.” That doesn’t have to be a problem, Thomas/Daniel.

Released: 2015
Dir: David Jackson
Writer: Tracy Andreen
Cast: Jen Lilley, Thomas Beaudoin, Robert Walsh, Kati Salowsky, Steven Miller, Bates Wilder, Brett Leigh, Joanna Herrington
Time: 91 min
Lang: English and old timey English
Country: United States
Network: Lifetime
Reviewed: 2016