The prevailing story of Jennifer Lopez’s film career has been one of decline, the promise of “Out of Sight” collapsing in a string of simple romantic comedies. Watching these post-Soderbergh movies as a group, though, reveals that Lopez is actually a sly, insolently funny performer, and one who repeatedly selects roles that are defined by their work. Lopez has played a wedding planner, a maid, a dance instructor, a temp, a caterer, a dog walker, and she’s actually depicted on the job.
Hollywood generally prefers to ignore the day-to-day expertise that goes into cleaning a room or serving an appetizer (a telling sign in “Maid in Manhattan” reads, “strive to be invisible”), but Lopez actively seeks out these moments. “The Wedding Planner,” “Maid in Manhattan,” “Shall We Dance,” and “Monster-in-Law” are a remarkably similar quartet in this respect, presenting Lopez as the rare actor who can be read as an auteur (she’s returning to the big screen this weekend with a new rom-com, “The Back-up Plan,” after a four-year absence).
Lopez was famously raised in the Bronx by her Puerto Rican parents, and dropped out of Baruch College after a semester in order to take dance and voice classes. After some work on TV (a backup dancer on “In Living Color,” a supporting role in “South Central”), she shifted to film, landing some minor parts before breaking out with the lead in “Selena.” She plays the late Mexican-American pop star with disarming naïveté, an immaculately carefree teen oblivious to the traps that fame has set for her.
Immensely proud of her heritage, Lopez seems to explode with energy in the films set in the Latino community (the aforementioned “Selena,” “Mi Familia” and “El Cantante”), while in her mainstream Hollywood productions she becomes more withholding, mischievous and sarcastic. Perhaps fearful of falling prey to the “hot-blooded Latina” stereotype, Lopez’s romantic comedy roles present her as a series of fiercely independent loners, in love with their jobs more than the men they inevitably marry. Working well within the clichés of the genre, Lopez still manages to offer a more nuanced vision of modern womanhood than her competitors.
Katherine Heigl, the current rom-com queen, is a pleasantly stiff actress, but has never played a character that could possibly exist without a man, or even hold down a job with actual responsibility. In the workplace, which is invariably a brightly lit modernist office, Heigl or Aniston or Bullock wear titles of “editor,” “executive” or “attorney” like a designer dress, their only duty to pursue connubial bliss. In “27 Dresses,” Heigl is solely defined by her “always the bridesmaid” guilt, in love with her boss at an environmental non-profit, which apparently employs her to pine away at a lucite desk. In “The Wedding Planner,” Lopez is at the top of her field and close to making partner. She’s shown expertly corralling a drunk father-in-law, feeding a speech to a nervous best man, and composing the shots for the wedding video.
Heigl is abjectly miserable where Lopez is merely melancholy (and very busy). The plots end up in the same hetero-normative place, but the crucial difference is that Lopez’s eventual marriage is a matter of choice, whereas with Heigl (and Aniston, and Bullock, and so on), it’s posed as a metaphysical necessity. And it’s this freedom to Lopez’s characters that make her comedies so much more fun and revealing, lifting these otherwise rote genre exercises into the category of what Andrew Sarris termed “subjects for further research.” It is what makes her career worth investigating.
This freedom would mean little if Lopez was a bore on-screen, but she has a nifty comedic repertoire. She tends towards arrogance and insolence, hair pulled back and head tilted high, as she steamrolls her way through the workday, a grin creeping in through pursed lips when she lands a verbal or physical blow. When she finally cracks up, it’s with staccato monologues and impulsive bits of violence.
In her best film, “Maid in Manhattan,” she’s a harried hotel maid and single mom, cutting down Amy Sedaris after an offhand racist slur, casually smacking her with the bedspread while in the act of folding. Partly set in the Bronx, it’s an homage to the industrious spirit of her parents, a class-conscious “Cinderella” story that never patronizes its working class characters, and halfway earns the storybook ending. (Notably, in the end credit montage, she’s shown making the cover of Hotel Manager magazine with no bridal publications in sight).