Directed by Robert Luketic. Starring Jane Fonda, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Vartan, Wanda Sykes, Adam Scott, Annie Parisse, Monet Mazur. (2005, PG-13, 102 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 13, 2005
It’s been 15 years since Jane Fonda’s last film (Martin Ritt’s ode to middle-age, blue-collar love, Stanley & Iris), which, you’d think, would be time enough to find a comeback script worthy of Fonda’s edgier talents. Apparently not. Monster-in-Law is a banal and lukewarm slice of romantic comedy and family histrionics that is as soft and ephemeral as any colorized Ted Turner outing. Its breezy, pointless take on the old saw about mothers-in-law being such irascible harpies is as long in the tooth as Fonda – more so, actually. And while it’s apparent that the actress can more than hold her own against Lopez – and honestly, how hard can that be after the career torpedo that was Gigli? – and is having something approaching a gas playing the shrewish, smothering Viola Fields, by film’s end Fonda fans will more than likely be scurrying to the nearest video outlet to mainline Klute or Julia or even The Electric Horseman. (The oddball Barbarella, of course, screens so often on AMC that it’s already in everybody’s guilty pleasure collection.) Fonda’s Viola is a Barbara Walters-esque TV personality who checks into a mental institution after an on-set freak-out triggered by the news that she’s being replaced by a much younger, blonder, and more vapid talking head. (She also has something of a drinking problem, but the film glosses over this and uses it only to comic effect.) Her M.D. son Kevin, meanwhile, has fallen in love with Lopez’s dog-walking artist-caterer Charlie. After a courtship so whirlwind I’m still not sure what on earth attracted the two to each other, Kevin brings his new paramour home to meet mom, with results so predictable that it’s a testament to Fonda’s enduring screen presence that anyone would bother sitting through the entire film. Viola and Charlie commence an ever-escalating battle of ownership over the clueless Kevin, using tactics such as sleeplessness, and later, attempted poisoning by walnut (Charlie’s allergic to them). The denouement, in which Viola comes to her senses (and I hardly think I’m giving anything away here) and relents her hold on her prized, utterly unengaging offspring, is as hackneyed as you’d think. What’s more annoying about Monster-in-Law is what it has to say about the dynamics of mother-son relationships, which is not good, and also how it views middle-aged women, particularly those in positions of societal power. Viola’s first-act breakdown and her incessant drinking have an oddly misogynistic feel about them, this despite the fact that the script is penned by first-timer Anya Kochoff. Monster-in-Law’s saving grace is Wanda Sykes, who plays Viola’s catty, smartass assistant. It’s not enough to save the entire film, however, which ultimately rests on the tipsy notion that powerful women deposed of public throne and private offspring become raving, literal maniacs. How much better this would have been had someone like Brian De Palma stepped behind the camera.