THE BIGGEST SURPRISE IN THE new Jennifer Lopez vehicle Maid in Manhattan is that her love interest, played by Ralph Fiennes, is a Republican senatorial candidate. Can a major Hollywood actress-even in a fairy tale-all in love with a Republican? Perhaps the filmmakers were trying to cash in on the spirit of the times-but they soften this Republican's image by making his key issue inner-city housing and making sure that the audience knows he has a "pro-environment" voting record.
Everything else about Maid in Manhattan (rated PG-13 for some bad language/sexual references) is utterly devoid of originality, imagination, or even charm. It's proof positive of how hard it is for a star-driven, studio-manufactured picture to rise above its pedigree. Import a talented co-star (the underused Mr. Fiennes), director (Wayne Wang), and supporting cast (Stanley Tucci, Natasha Richardson), and a quality film you still do not have.
Ms. Lopez plays Marisa, a New York City maid at a posh hotel who dreams of bigger and better things. Mr. Fiennes shows up one day and sweeps Marisa off her feet. The only problem is that, through the type of crazy, mixed-up events that only happen in the movies, he thinks she is as fabulously rich as he is. So she faces the big dilemma: tell him the truth and risk losing him, or keep up the lie ... and risk losing him.
The problem here is not with the actors-not even Ms. Lopez. (It's easy to forget that she built an impressive film resume before taking on the J. Lo pop "persona.") The blame resides squarely on the shoulders of writers Kevin Wade and John Hughes (credited here as Edmond Dantes). There is not even a whisper of originality in this story. All of the familiar elements are in place: the over-burdened single mom; her precocious, lonely kid, desperately in need of a father figure; the earthy but wise gal-pal friends, etc., etc., etc. Entire scenes have been literally lifted from other films and transported here, with minimal retooling.
Maid in Manhattan also suffers from Hollywood's inability to distinguish romance from sex. Naturally, Ms. Lopez and Mr. Fiennes consummate their relationship on their first date-the audience apparently wouldn't understand that this was true love otherwise. By this standard, all of our classic fairy tales need reworking: The prince should have found a way to sleep with Cinderella before the clock struck 12 and her carriage turned back into a pumpkin.
The story may have been set in Manhattan, but everything about this film smacks of its true origins: clearly this product was "Made in Hollywood."
Solaris is a film that has another problem with the idea of romantic love. It's not that writer/director Steven Soderbergh can't distinguish between love and sex, but that he can't find anything in the world--universe, in fact--more significant.
Solaris (rated PG-13 on appeal for sexuality/nudity, brief bad language, and thematic elements) is the plodding remake of a 1972 Russian film, which was in turn based on a 1961 Stanislaw Lem novel. A brief plot synopsis is easy, because there really isn't much in the way of plot. George Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, a psychologist sent to a privately owned space station orbiting the planet Solaris, a mysterious ocean world. Strange things have been happening aboard the space station, and the captain, a friend of Kelvin, asks him to come help.
Kelvin journeys to the station alone, where he discovers several crewmembers, including the captain, are dead. "Visitors" embodying some innermost longing--a son or a brother, perhaps--have joined those that remain alive.
Kelvin is soon joined by his own visitor: his dead wife, who committed suicide years earlier. Is she real? Can Kelvin risk losing his wife a second time?
Mr. Soderbergh's measured pacing is understandable; the existential, philosophy-heavy material demands it. Mr. Soderbergh's visual acumen is undeniable, and watching the slowly arcing light show of the planet Solaris can be mesmerizing.
Yet the ideas at the heart of Solaris are both muddy and weak. Dylan Thomas's poem "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" is quoted, or referred to, frequently in the film. And that's where Mr. Soderbergh ends up: Kelvin's choices lead him to a place where death has no power, all is "forgiven," and his love for his wife may be ultimately fulfilled. It's a heaven of sorts, but notably absent is any concept of God. Mr. Soderbergh arrives at a sort of supernatural humanism, which is vaguely interesting, but certainly not compelling.