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Monster-in-Law (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 13 May 2005
For thirty years, from “Tall Story” in 1960 to “Staley & Iris” in 1990, Jane Fonda had one of the more remarkable careers in the history of movies of the second half of the 20th century. The daughter of Henry Fonda, she made her debut as a star and remained a star for the length of her career. She constantly re-invented herself, both professionally and personally, and her on-screen image ranged from the sex kitten of “Barbarella” and other movies by Roger Vadim, to whom she was married for a while, to the serious actress of “Klute,” “Coming Home,” “They Shoot Horses Don’t They” and “On Golden Pond.” She was also well-known, at times notorious, for her political stances, and was an exercise-video pioneer. Then she married Ted Turner and basically vanished from the public view almost entirely.

Now she’s back with an autobiography and a new movie, this one. I always liked her as an actress, and was especially fond of her distinctive voice, which resembled her father’s. Barbara Streisand was off screen for years, returning late last year with a good supporting role in the entertaining, if airy, “Meet the Fockers.” I had hoped Fonda’s return might be on that level.

But seeing “Monster-In-Law,” I had to wonder—is this the BEST script she was offered? Granted, it’s not easy to find good roles for actresses her age (67), even for those who’ve been working steadily. But “Monster-In-Law” is such an ordinary trifle, far below the norm of the last ten years or so of Fonda’s previous career, that it’s especially disappointing.

Not that Fonda is bad. She’s terrific in her first few scenes, and for a moment you relax—she’s back, she’s taking charge, she just validated this routine movie by being an authentic, old-fashioned movie star. But soon she succumbs to the dreary routine of this regretfully average movie.

First, it’s really a Jennifer Lopez movie with Jane Fonda in it. Not that Lopez herself is bad; she has an easy, ingratiating style that keeps her likeable throughout. But there’s nothing exceptional about the movie; it’s an utterly routine romantic comedy with little to recommend it beyond its two leads.

This is the first produced script by Anya Kochoff, who clearly has researched recent romantic comedies. First, heroine Charlie (Lopez) is shown to be a really good person—she has a bunch of part-time jobs, including (to show her as cute and good-hearted) dog-walker. She’s also a medical receptionist, coaches Little League, and has lots of other athletic and very giving jobs and hobbies. But what she really wants to do is paint—and find Mr. Right.
Her dog-walking career allows director Robert Luketic to get in one of those sure-fire dogs-humping scenes, only, you know, kind of tasteful. And of course early on there is a poo-poo joke. Naturally, one of Charlie’s best friends, Remy (Adam Scott), is gay. Her other best friend, Morgan (Annie Parisse), is stable and runs a catering service, where Charlie also occasionally works.

The dog-walking gig and the catering bit bring Charlie into contact with Kevin Fields (Michael Vartan), who’s really cute and has a perpetually three-day growth of attractive stubble. At least I guess women find it attractive; I kept wondering if he had run out of razor blades. Kevin is a rich, brilliant doctor, though we never get to see him do doctor stuff (or much of anything), and he has a very jealous, bitchy girlfriend, Fiona (Monet Mazur; has there ever been a movie with a nice Fiona?). She immediately tells Charlie that Kevin is gay. This causes some problems but of course they are quickly resolved.

Meanwhile, we meet Kevin’s mother, famous TV interviewer Viola Fields (Fonda) on the very day that she’s fired in place of a much younger replacement. This plus an unfortunately-timed interview with an airheaded young singer sends Viola right over the edge and into the booby hatch. Months pass.

When we next meet Viola, she’s being sprung from the asylum by her acerbic assistant Ruby (Wanda Sykes in the Thelma Ritter role). Viola is supposed to take it easy, but how can she when her son introduces her to this—this—TEMP Charlie. And then proposes to Charlie right in front of her (credibility is not a virtue this film seeks).

This somehow plays into Viola’s insecurity, but the screenplay fails to show any link between Viola’s professional difficulties and those she thinks she’s facing as Kevin’s mother. We’re told the one thing and, a bit later, the other thing, as if they will magically tie together. They don’t. Surely someone could have thought of a way to link Viola’s Diane Sawyer-like career to her view of herself as a mother, to suggest her (of course misplaced) concerns about Charlie’s appropriateness as a daughter-in-law have something to do with her fear of getting older, of being supplanted in her private life by a younger woman as she was in her professional life. But neither the script nor director Luketic allows Viola the trace of wistful poignancy; Charlie never comes to see things from Viola’s point of view. Some of that would have made the movie a richer experience in terms of characterization.

And it sure the heck could have used it. Every character is exactly the same throughout the movie; nobody undergoes any real changes, nobody really learns anything about themselves. Near the end, Viola’s own tough mother in law Gertrude (the reliable Elaine Stritch) shows up briefly. But again all the script does is place ideas next to each other, hoping, I guess, for some kind of cinematic osmosis. Doesn’t happen.

What does happen from one end of the movie to the other is pretty much what you expect to happen from the moment Viola and Charlie first meet. Viola decides she’s going to drive Charlie away by being impossibly demanding, sweetly critical, and an utter pain in the neck. Charlie decides she can take whatever Viola can dish out.

The movie often is reasonably entertaining; with Lopez and Fonda in the cast it was always likely to be worth seeing on some level. But until Fonda shows up, “Monster-In-Law” was starting to shape up as “The Return of Gigli.” Initially, Fonda is so good that she just about validates the movie by herself, but this isn’t maintained. Nonetheless, she’s in there punching, absolutely fearless—she has a scene showing her freckled, bony shoulders and the loose skin on her upper arms. And she doesn’t give a damn if you don’t like the way she looks—more power to her for that courageous attitude. (Lopez is gutsy, too: she goes right ahead with a joke about her ample ass.)

Fonda has done comedy before—“Period of Adjustment,” “Barbarella,” “Sunday in New York,” “Barefoot in the Park,” “Cat Ballou,” the original “Fun with Dick and Jane”—but those are far in the past. It’s astonishing to see her enthusiastically leap into the physical stuff the part requires—she leaps across a TV stage to strangle an infuriating dimwit, she falls face-first into a plate of tripe, she dons a hideous dress, she has a creepy-funny near-hysterical laugh—but she’s bigger than the role, a sports-car engine stuck into a minivan of a movie.

Lopez is pretty much in her element though she, too, deserves a better script than this. Even “Made in America” was better than this trivial outing (though it is indeed better than “Gigli”). It plods its handsome, over-dressed route from meet-cute opening to final clinch without a single surprise along the way.

Certainly there are no surprises in the supporting cast. Michael Vartan has a thankless role—the decent handsome swell catch and dutiful son—but he doesn’t bring much to it, either. He’s off screen for much of the middle stretch of the movie, and he’s not missed. Wanda Sykes isn’t very interesting or funny in the Ritter-esque role of Ruby, but from the way the camera frequently cuts to her, she must have broken up the production crew. She lacks Thelma Ritter’s world-weary, my-feet-are-tired personal style; Ritter’s sarcasm was always supported by our knowledge that at heart, she likes the people she’s stinging with her wisecracks. This could be true of Sykes, had she an observant director, but Luketic seems to think that Sykes can do it all on her own.

“Monster-In-Law” is the kind of movie you’d expect to see on a Sunday afternoon on the Lifetime cable channel. It’s okay, but it’s more ordinary than anything else, a commonplace romantic comedy with a couple of thoroughbreds in the leading roles.

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