Movie review: ‘Monster-in-Law’

I’m not much of a fan of either Jane Fonda or Jennifer Lopez, but it is possible to like a film with a couple of headliners that you might usually rate as “so-so” or “who cares?” Take “Monster-in-Law” for example. While Lopez is the top billed star here, Fonda’s energy shoves her aside as the partly psychotic soon-to-be mother-in-law who is desperate to sabotage her son’s relationship. “Monster-in-Law” is a neat little romantic comedy worth catching on cable channels.

‘Monster-in-Law’
(2005; 101 minutes; rated PG-13; directed by Robert Lucketic and starring Jane Fonda, Jennifer Lopez and Michael Vartan)

BRINGING IT WITH OLD-SCHOOL SABOTAGE

Although Jennifer Lopez gets headliner status with Jane Fonda in “Monster-in-Law,” she cannot keep up with either Fonda’s acting ability OR energy here. Plain and simple: “Monster-in-Law” is a showcase for Fonda and when she’s not on screen it’s as dull and lifeless as dishwater.

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I have to say Fonda isn’t one of my favorite stars but she has an impressive resume including two Oscars and five nominations (I liked her best in “The Electric Horseman” with Robert Redford) and was a great choice for “Monster-in-Law.” Lopez is more “today” but with much less acting talent. However, she does become a bit endearing here and that isn’t easy at any time by any actor.

In “Monster-in-Law,” Lopez, playing “Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Cantillini,” falls in love with a doctor whose mother is a Barbara Walters-like TV interviewer who has just been fired in favor of a younger woman. It’s the stereotypical girl-attracted-to-boy and they meet and fall in love story. However, the serpent in their Garden of Eden has just gotten out of a hospital after her breakdown following her firing and she begins a campaign to break up the couple.

Fonda, who plays “Viola Fields,” winds up stacking the deck and dealing aces off the bottom by pulling out some old-school sabotage weapons: playing the my-son-is-all-I’ve-got-left card, being two-faced by putting an old girlfriend back in the picture and just plain old rapid-fire annoyance. Of course this just sets up the jokes and the film concludes with surprisingly good work by both actors in the climactic showdown between the two women.

Fonda is just superb from the beginning as the imperious TV interviewer of heads of state and other historical figures. After getting out of treatment for her breakdown, Fonda just oozes anger, energy and a not-so-well-hidden bitterness. Since you don’t see Fonda until 16 minutes into “Monster-in-Law” you probably were wondering why you even watched it and then the dynamite explodes with all of Fonda’s talent and energy. She has also been in “California Suite” (click here for my review), the original “Fun with Dick and Jane” (click here for my review) as well as her Oscar-winning roles in “Klute” and “Coming Home.”

At the end, you realize another actor could have been better here than Lopez. She doesn’t bring much to the table (except at the end where she briefly elevates her character to nearly Fonda’s equal) and is fun but lacking that “something.” Lopez has also been in “Selena,” “The Wedding Planner” and “Maid in Manhattan.”

Monster-in-Law” wasn’t a hit with the critics and did OK at the box office, but electricity between the two women make it better than its rating by critics. Especially funny are the brief dream sequences when Fonda imagines jamming Lopez’s face into dessert or when Lopez imagines smacking Fonda with a skillet. The pair’s face-smacking routine at the end is almost as good.

The supporting cast is solid, especially Wanda Sykes, but they are all left in Fonda’s wake.

Sykes plays “Ruby,” who is the brassy, sharp-tongued assistant to Fonda. Sykes does a great job of being the little-listened-to voice of reason for Fonda and she delivers one-liners like knockout punches. Sykes has also been in “Evan Almighty,” “Pootie Tang” and TV shows such as “Crank Yankers” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Lost in all of this chick-flick talent is Michael Vartan as “Dr. Kevin Fields,” who is the longsuffering son who finds his bride-to-be is becoming longsuffering, too. Vartan is even more milquetoast than Lopez in her early scenes and by the end is just so much window dressing for the two women. He has also been in the powerfully creepy “One Hour Photo” and the “Never Been Kissed.”

Three-time Emmy winner Elaine Stritch has the most bombastic effort in the smallest part. She plays “Gertude,” who is Fonda’s mother-in-law and delivers knockout verbal punches of her own even more quickly than Fonda. Stritch is very good here in what can only be called a bit part and you’d like to have seen more – but she would have detracted from Fonda. Stritch has also been in “Autumn in New York,” plus TV roles including a soap opera and had a career of eight decades beginning in 1948. She passed away this year at the age of 89.

Of Lopez’s friends, only Adam Scott stands out. Scott, who plays “Remy,” breezes into and out of scenes with ease and is a confidant worth listening to. He pulls off a neat role here with a touch of sophistication not every actor can always find. Scott has also been in “The Aviator” and “Step Brothers.”

So, in a final word of advice: if you record “Monster-in-Law” on your DVR then fast forward to Fonda’s initial scene. You won’t miss much of the bland courtship of Lopez and Vartan and you’ll get right to the good stuff (the scene with the Britney Spears-like pop star is priceless).

Monster-in-Law” was the 23rd ranked film at the U.S. box office in 2005 with $$82.9 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. Worldwide, “Monster-in-Law” made $154.7 million on a $43 million budget, according to Wiki. “Monster-in-Law” came in five spots behind the remake of Fonda’s “Fun with Dick and Jane,” which made $110.3 million and trailed far behind the year’s No. 1 film: “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” with $380.2 million.

Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Monster-in-Law” was Fonda’s first film since “Stanley and Iris” in 1990 and she was quoted as saying that she based her character on her former husband Ted Turner.
  • Stephanie Turner plays “Tanya Murphy,” who is the teenaged pop star so vacuous that Fonda attacks her during an interview. Turner does Britney Spears very well and has also been five TV roles to her credit as well as the film “Paper Cuts.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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