May 14, 2005

MOVIES: Monster-in-Law (Robert Luketic, 2005)

Monster-in-Law isn't the utter disaster that a lot of the reviews have called it; it's just completely predictable and utterly mediocre. Jennifer Lopez is better than I'd expected -- I haven't seen any of her movies since Out of Sight -- and I'd like to see her again in a movie with a decent script and an actual story.

In this one, Lopez plays Charlie, a temp/dogwalker/cater waiter who meets Mr. Wonderful on the beach. He's Kevin, played by Michael Vartan of TV's Alias; Kevin isn't much more than a plot device here, and Vartan is certainly up to the movie's limited demands on his talent.

Kevin's mother is Viola, a TV newswoman/interviewer -- think Barbara Walters -- who's just recovering from a nervous breakdown after having been fired and replaced by a younger, prettier newsbimbo. Viola is devoted to her son, and horrified at the news that he's marrying Charlie, who she thinks isn't nearly good enough for her precious boy.

Viola is played by Jane Fonda, making her movie comeback after 15 years, and she's entirely wrong for the part. I can't claim an encyclopedic knowledge of Fonda's career, but I don't recall that broad physical comedy was ever one of her strengths, and she's not very good at it here. In addition to near-slapstick, Fonda's also called on to do a lot of suppressed anger as she tries to make nice in Kevin's presence; I couldn't help but think how much better those scenes would have been played by, for instance, Candice Bergen.

Fonda isn't helped by the script. Viola is so loathsome that we've no choice but to root against her, when the movie would have better off giving us a battle of moral equals; had Viola had some legitimate reason (even if one arising from confusion or mistaken belief) to despise Charlie, she'd have been a bit more sympathetic and the conflict between the two women would have been a lot funnier.

The movie's other major role is Ruby, Viola's personal assistant, played by Wanda Sykes. Sykes gets most of the movie's biggest laughs (and I am not generally fond of her at all), but the role -- a sassy black woman -- is an appalling throwback, and I was surprised to see Sykes stooping to such minstrelsy.

Elaine Stritch arrives late in the film for a brief cameo, and she brings to her scene a crispness and a sense of timing that the movie had lacked until that point. Wouldn't it be nice if someone would write a good movie around her?

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