Why do I like Wayne Wang’s Maid In Manhattan? It can’t be the syrupy Norah Jones CD that seems to have been left on repeat in the editing room, or the utterly conventional story. The deep-bench casting helps — when you can afford to waste both Chris Eigeman and Stanley Tucci, you’ve clearly been stockpiling talent. But the key to enjoying this soufflé is an element stolen, originally, from Cinderella and, more recently, from Pretty Woman — the underclass community rallying to give one of their own a shot at the glamorous life. Maid in Manhattan is tolerable primarily because it creates a candy-coated, but still dignified and interesting, version of the servant class explored somewhat more seriously in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, and because as all those movies demonstrate, we never tire of watching that class pull together behind its one (very pretty female) nominee to escape the drudgery.
But all those stories seem to be ultimately a kind of fantasy borne out of class anxiety: we want to believe that at least a few people will rise from the grueling milieu of working-class poverty, and we hope that their ascent will be ratified by their former peers, because it’s obvious that not everyone will get to go. I find these stories gratifying, but I don’t really believe them, because it feels like the sense of community support is being used to gloss over the fact that the heroine is almost always rejecting what she is.
But leaving Cinderella stories aside, how much do I believe in the idea of a community rising to meet a moral challenge? A couple of recent films hinge on the question.
First there’s Lars and the Real Girl, last year’s small Ryan Gosling vehicle about a disturbed/eccentric young man who finds it easier to date a rubber doll than a living flesh woman. The citizens of his tiny town, on the advice of the local doctor, indulge Lars in his fantasy, and they eventually adopt his “girlfriend,” taking her out for nights on the town and getting her involved in volunteer work.
I think no one will be very surprised by the end of this film — Lars’s arc is pretty much a given — so what’s of interest is the transformation wrought on the community by a collective, willing act of fantasy. The degree to which we invest in this film is exactly the degree to which we believe in that act, and for the most part I did. There’s a gentleness here that appeals to me as a mobile, urban/suburban single person who moves every two years — I like believing in this kind of town, where people have known each other for years, if not whole lifetimes, and can extend more than reasonable amounts of kindness to one another. It’s a big part of why I always liked Northern Exposure. I have no idea whether these places are real, but I always hope they are.
SPOILERS FOR THE DARK KNIGHT FOLLOW
I want to believe in these group acts of conscience, but it’s easier for me to engage that fantasy in a little rural community than in the cold, individualistic milieu of the city. Which presents a problem for me in swallowing the final act of The Dark Knight. Yes, as every critic in the world has said by now, Christopher Nolan’s Batman reset has lifted the bar for comic book movies. (Are you watching, Zack Snyder?) But if we’re honest with ourselves, all that that means is that it’s good enough to be judged by the standards of a real movie, and not to hide behind that most pitiful of excuses, “It’s only a comic book.”
So if we’re going to judge this as a real movie, I have to say it’s hard to let certain things slide. Harvey Dent’s third-act transformation feels rushed and, given his absolute commitment to justice for the first three quarters of the film, seems like it would be hard to make convincing even if there were adequate time. (This is not to deny the effectiveness of the Joker’s bedside speech.) The whole cell phone monitoring subplot seems artificially wedged in primarily to make a political point, and the point itself is ridiculous — does anybody really believe that Dick Cheney and John Yoo are going to push a button and dissolve the NSA as soon as Osama bin Laden is found?
Similarly, and this comes back to the problems above, I couldn’t quite follow the film’s Capra-esque optimism in the scene with the two ferries. Call me cynical, but I found the likelihood that hundreds of people on both boats would find themselves unable to pull the trigger on their social opposites, frankly, slender. I was expecting the super-cynical solution — that the citizens would off the convicts — but it didn’t happen. Instead, everyone acted civilized and did the right thing. Maybe they were all Paying It Forward. I might have bought that from a different movie, but Dark Knight spent a good ninety minutes making a very compelling argument that nihilistic chaos is the strongest player in life, and the sudden reversal didn’t work for me at all.