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Jennifer Lopez’s Working Class Roots

Jennifer Lopez’s Working Class Roots (photo)

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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.

04212010_selena1.jpgImmensely 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.

04212010_maidinmanhattan1.jpgThis 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).

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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