Times Staff Writer

“Maid to Order” (citywide) is a sparkling Cinderella-in-reverse comedy starring Ally Sheedy as a spoiled Beverly Hills princess that is one of the summer’s keenest delights. Director Amy Jones, who wrote the script with debuting screenwriting sisters Perry and Randy Howze, has moved from the intimate, low-budget “Love Letters” into the big league with complete confidence and no loss of integrity. Surprisingly substantial for all the laughter it generates, “Maid to Order” proves a movie can have cross-generational appeal and still be a provocative entertainment.

When Sheedy’s overly indulgent widowed philanthropist father (Tom Skerritt) mutters that he sometimes wishes he’d never had a daughter, he’s overheard by Stella (Beverly D’Angelo), her glamorous fairy godmother, who decides it’s time to take Sheedy in hand.

“Some maids deserve to be princesses, and some princesses deserve to be maids,” explains the sultry Stella to Sheedy’s Jessie Montgomery, who has just discovered that she’s literally down and out in Beverly Hills. Stella has erased all memory of Jessie: her friends as well as her father and his servants no longer recognize her, and she winds up working as a maid for superagent Stan Sharkey (the late Dick Shawn) and his flashy wife Georgette (Valerie Perrine). Jessie may suck up curtains with a vacuum, fill the kitchen with soap suds and take the wrinkles out of Stan’s fashionably crumpled Armani jacket, but Georgette dismisses such goofs, saying in her bubble-headed way, “It’s so difficult to find good white help these days.”


While it scarcely comes as a shock that Jessie does shape up in time or that she should fall for the Sharkeys’ handsome chauffeur (Michael Ontkean), an aspiring songwriter, “Maid to Order” takes an unexpected and rewarding tack by moving away from such predictable developments to concentrate on the Sharkeys’ other servants, their second maid Maria (Begona Plaza), who’s from El Salvador, and their cook Audrey (Merry Clayton), who’s black. Indeed, the very heart of the film belongs to veteran singer Clayton, sensational in her first major screen role. Neither Audrey nor Maria is overly thrilled with Jessie, but you can see that the maternal, good-natured Audrey is eventually going to extend a helping hand to the arrogant and klutzy novice.

One of the film’s surest, most admirable touches is to have us discover the unobtrusive Audrey through Jessie; it makes us realize that we could have overlooked Audrey as easily as Jessie did. We are also as surprised as Jessie to learn that Audrey was once a famous singer, undone by the bottle. She’s now the mainstay of her family, a responsibility that at times threatens her sobriety. And when Audrey does sing it’s clear from her first note that she’s overdue for a major comeback. The point is that when Jessie starts to think of others instead of herself, “Maid to Order” actually follows through and shifts the focus from her to Audrey.

There are so many subtleties to “Maid to Order,” it’s dismaying that Valerie Perrine’s wardrobe is so overstated--when we meet her she’s wearing both leopard and zebra skin. Luckily, Perrine and Shawn know how to find the humor and even innocence in the exuberantly gaudy Sharkeys. “Maid to Order” is, in fact, the kind of film that allows everyone to shine from Beverly D’Angelo’s irresistibly slinky and witty Stella to Sheedy herself, who progresses convincingly from shallow brat to thoughtful young woman. “Maid to Order,” which has terrific, zingy dialogue, builds upon one of the year’s most solidly constructed scripts.

Inevitably, this smart, good-looking film invites comparison to “Ruthless People” as well as to “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” as a Southern California social satire. But in a very real sense “Maid to Order” (rated PG for a few blunt words) gives itself a priceless advantage by being forthrightly a fairy tale. Happy endings are never so poignant as when we know they’re make-believe.