On three occasions, John Hughes used the pseudonym Edmond Dantes when he felt the film represented other people’s work more than his own. It doesn’t mean the movies are horrible. The first, “Beethoven,” in which Hughes’ screenplay was rewritten, is halfway decent. And Hughes’ resume concludes with two films where “Dantes” provides the story and other writers pen the screenplays: the likeable romance “Maid in Manhattan” (2002) and the solid geeks-versus-bullies comedy “Drillbit Taylor” (2008).
“Maid in Manhattan” is as predictable as a romance film can get while still being enjoyable. Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes have good chemistry as maid Marisa and assemblyman Christopher – especially in the scenes where Marisa is pretending to be a well-off society woman. The way the clothes make Marisa into a different person allows “Maid’s” point about class differences (a Hughes staple from back in the day) to land.
Lopez is a solid choice for this breezy “Cinderella” update, while Fiennes dodges his Voldemort persona (the “Harry Potter” films had begun at this point) by grinning a lot, showing he’s a politician, but not the usual bad kind. “Maid” demonstrates that the odds of meeting someone are vastly improved with a kid (Marisa’s son Ty, likably played by Tyler Posey) and/or dog (Christopher’s), because children and canines don’t put up an automatic wall.
We know because it’s a written work that Chris will like Marisa even after finding out she’s a maid, so there’s little suspense, but the duo is so likable that the paces are easy to go through. Marisa seems to work up inexplicable annoyances – over a colleague (Marissa Matrone as quirky bestie Stephanie) submitting a managerial application for her, and over Chris’ assumed eventual rejection. But this also serves the point that society’s interest in dividing people by class is not solely an invention of the rich; Marisa’s mom (Priscilla Lopez, no real-world relation) tells her daughter she’s “not allowed” to date Chris – years of hearing things like this have shaped Marisa.
“Maid” is a thoroughly nice film, as screenwriter Kevin Wade’s “villains” hardly qualify for the term: the assemblyman’s assistant Jerry (Stanley Tucci) wishes Chris wasn’t distracted by a romance amid his campaign, but it’s nothing personal against Marisa; the hotel manager (Chris Eigeman) of course has to fire an employee who borrows a guest’s clothes; and Marisa’s mom has the values of a prior generation. Maybe a Hughes screenplay would’ve had them suffer pratfalls, but it’s hard to see how.
Judging by the films he was writing slightly before this, I doubt Hughes could’ve improved on Wade’s screenplay. (It is interesting, though, that Hughes’ story was originally set in 1920s Chicago, which would’ve made it his first period piece.) In his prior work – notably the 1991 trifecta of “Curly Sue,” “Dutch” and “Career Opportunities” — Hughes said what he wanted to say about how the class divide matters to people but should not.
Director Wayne Wang and cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub allow “Maid” to comfortably double as a Manhattan tour. Adding to the pleasantness is a soundtrack featuring Norah Jones in the year of her breakthrough album “Come Away with Me.” These things allow “Maid in Manhattan” to painlessly flow over a viewer.
“Drillbit Taylor” – aimed at a different audience than “Maid” (unless that audience is “People watching every John Hughes movie”) — is a broader and looser film, but it’s also funnier and more inventive. Hughes never directly worked with the next generation of comedy writers in what we could call a “handoff” film, so “Drillbit” is as close as we get. Writers Seth Rogen and Kristofor Brown (“Undeclared”) and director Steven Brill bring to life Hughes’ timeless story of bullied kids confronting their tormentors.
Perhaps accidentally, perhaps purposefully, Rogen and Brown include Hughesian elements. The final showdown at a party thrown by lead bully Filkins (Alex Frost) riffs on “Some Kind of Wonderful.” Since this is a much broader comedy, the moment where the heroes – Wade (Nate Hartley), Ryan (Troy Gentile) and Emmit (David Dorfman) – “defeat” Filkins with the initial blows is soon followed by Filkins getting up and the fight escalating.
Although the film is in some ways ridiculous, allowing Owen Wilson to do his shtick as the titular bodyguard, “Drillbit” says something resonant about bullying. The early scenes of Filkins and Ronnie (Josh Peck) doing their thing – including stuffing Emmit into his locker – make us feel like we are bystanders, watching horrible behavior and wondering if we would be brave enough to do something.
Wade and friends – who ably follow in the tradition of the geeks from “Weird Science” — initially file a complaint with the principal (Stephen Root), who chuckles at their recounting of the bullies’ insults such as “Siamese queers.” For Plan B, they hire homeless Army deserter Drillbit, who we desperately want to see beat up Filkins and Ronnie but who instead trains the geeks to fight. Rogen and Brown understand that the only lasting solution is to fight back, because violence is the only language bullies grasp.
While “Drillbit” ain’t exactly “Rambo” – another 2008 film that builds up our hatred of the bad guys before the hero unleashes revenge – it hits similarly satisfying beats. And it’s funny; I laughed out loud a few times at either Wilson’s antics (I’m in that group that finds his naturalistic style charming, in limited doses) or strong one-liners. In a moment that combines the two sources of laughs, Drillbit oversells his war experiences to his teen clients by misquoting Rutger Hauer’s monolog from “Blade Runner.”
With Danny McBride on hand as Drillbit’s petty-thieving buddy and Leslie Mann having good chemistry as a desperate teacher crushing on Drillbit (whom she thinks is substitute teacher “Dr. Illbit”), the film doesn’t go long stretches without giving us something to chuckle at.
The fact that “Drillbit Taylor” is technically part of Hughes’ resume is trivial, as he only contributed the story. But since it’s listed right there on Hughes’ IMDb page as his last film, Rogen and company give him a nice tribute with this respectable message comedy in Hughes’ high school tradition.
“Maid in Manhattan”: