A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, PG-13, 105 mins.
Charlotte "Charlie" Cantilini: Jennifer Lopez / Viola Fields:
Jane Fonda / Kevin Fields:
Michael Vartan / Ruby:
Wanda Sykes / Remy: Adam Scott / Gertrude: Elaine Stritch /
Morgan: Annie Parisse / Fiona: Monet Mazur / Kit: Will Arnett
I am going to start off this review by getting something off of my chest:
Jane Fonda has absolutely nothing to prove.
She is an actress with a rather stellar dramatic resume, has won an Academy award for Best Supporting actress (in 1978 for COMING HOME) and, most importantly, was in one of the most campy, yet erotically charged, opening credit sequences in movie history in BARBARELLA in 1968. And now that sexy little space cowboy from that low budget nudie film is back after a fifteen year hiatus from screen acting and people have been bemoaning the thought, "Why would she agree to headline a film called MONSTER-IN-LAW after such a long time away from her last gig?"
The answer, all of you fools, is because she’s Jane-freakin’-Fonda and…you may have guessed...because she just can.
C’mon people…what were you really expecting from her in a film of this title? This is a MONSTER-IN-LAW, not COMING HOME, THE CHINA SYNDROME, or KLUTE. Anyone expecting something beyond the over-the-top social farce and comedy of manners in MONSTER are seriously, seriously deluding him or herself going into this film. It’s somewhat ironic to see that her last screen performance was way, way back in 1990 in STANLEY AND IRIS with co-star Robert DeNiro. DeNiro, you may or may not recall, also starred in a silly modern family comedy called MEET THE PARENTS and its sequel, MEET THE FOCKERS, where he played a sort of future father-in-law from hell. In a way, Fonda is merely following in his footsteps…and what the hell is wrong with that?
Now, I am not coming out by labeling myself as a MONSTER-IN-LAW apologist. The film has far too many negligible qualities for me to overlook, but not one is directed at Fonda herself, and other critics seem to have had a field day in terms of their overt criticism of her. What’s their beef? Fonda, in my mind, is an absolute delight and a hoot in this film and seems to be having a blast in her fiery, over-the-top, and boisterously antagonistic performance as Viola Fields. She is a former talk show host who just may be one of the most overprotective mothers of all time. Fonda plays the role as it should be – with a blistering zeal and a penchant for going for broke and being as deliciously unrestrained and outrageously broad as possible. Remember...this is farce and those that feel that the actors should play things straight miss the point.
Fonda does not owe anyone a film of better dramatic weight, nor does she owe it to anyone to make her comeback film one of social conscience or relevance. She has had quite the backstage political career to make her views and opinions felt. Yet, the one thing that has left a rather bitter and unsavory taste in my mouth about MONSTER-IN-LAW is all of the incessant and belligerent press she has received about her performance. For critics to say that it’s an insult to them to see her parade around be an obsessively domineering and mean-spirited maternal figure is, indirectly, insulting to Fonda herself.
Why, oh why do dramatic actors have to be pigeonholed into doing dramas for the remainder of their careers? Are they not to be afforded the opportunities to branch out and try something whacky, offbeat, and different? Robert DeNiro obviously broke far away from his Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta roots and went refreshingly lowball and whimsical for the MEET THE PARENTS films and never had many critics bat an eye. Yet, with Fonda’s decision to be in another similar themed comedy, its like one of the signs of the coming apocalypse. C’mon! Barbarella - who for a woman pushing seventy has never looked better, by the way – deserves every right to cut into a scenery chewing performance that demonstrates her willingness to look foolish, silly, and ruthless all at the same time.
Fonda, as much as critics would like to tell you the opposite, actually saves MONSTER-IN-LAW from complete mediocrity. The main failing with the film is that, at least in terms of its overall setup, it’s trying to be the blackest of dark comedies and instead is far too rosy and cheerful for its own good. Yes, it does have a streak of vileness and repugnancy to some of its scenes of comic high jinks, but the film never feels confident to dive right into the murky waters of a true black farce. MONSTER-IN-LAW plays everything remarkably and nauseatingly safe and feels the need to be more trivial and infantile with its jokes. The film should not be terribly shunned because it's shallow, insipid, and one-note; the film should be ridiculed to a degree because it’s a comedy that wants to offer up a viscous and cunning catfight between two women and instead looks more like the two vixens had their paws declawed. And not only that, but the film ends on such a note of completely false and manufactured sentimentality that it made me want to throw things incessantly at the screen.
MONSTER-IN-LAW opens by introducing Charlie (an affable and charming Jennifer Lopez) as one of those straight arrow and beyond-nice people. She works as a temp, which gives her a series of odd jobs daily that could not include a high salary, but she still nevertheless manages to have a Venice Beach apartment…go figure. She then has one of those typical movie ‘meet cutes’ and stumbles into the arms of another nice person – Dr. Kevin Fields (ALIAS’ Michael Vartan). Well, the young Doctor seems instantly smitten with J-Lo and proceeds in his attempts to court her. Lopez plays her character in a rather congenial, yet shortsighted manner. She seems to fail to comprehend why another man like Kevin would fall for her, but maybe she forgot to look in the mirror and realize that – dang it – I look like Jennifer Lopez and could have any dude that ran across the beach any day of the week…but I digress.
Needless to say, the two end up hitting it off wonderfully. They have managed to move in together and there only seems like one other hurdle to leap over. Faster than you can say “Fockerized” Kevin decides that the time is ripe for Charlie to meet his mother, and it is a testament to Kevin’s utter case of narrow minded tunnel vision in the sense that he fails to see the possible stumbling blocks that this meeting will have.
Why should he actually be fearful? Well, he loves his momma like any good momma’s boy does, but seems completely oblivious to the fact that she calls him seven times a day. Kevin’s mother, Viola (Fonda) is a sort of copy of Barbara Walters, except much more attractive if you consider her escalating years. Anyway, not only is Viola a domineering mother to Kevin, but she also is one mean customer at her day job. As the film opens she has just learned that the network is letting her go from her very popular talk show in order to catch a younger demographic with a more attractive host. This, of course, flips her into a rage, which she cathartically allows to get the better of herself when she absolutely loses it and tries to kill her last guest.
She then goes to a wellness clinic to seek help. Her personal assistant, played in a very droll and smart performance by Wanda Sykes, feels a bit concerned about her premature exit from what she calls the “funny farm”. And she should be worried because it seems that Viola has become so emotionally shattered by her TV career ending so abruptly that she is on the verge of a psychotic break. Viola not only is on this perilous verge, but she is also a demonstrative, vindictive, cruel, narcissistic and egotistical person and Fonda plays it all up for campy gusto. To make matters even worse for her life, she then finds out that her “brilliant surgeon son” is going to marry a “temp”. This is the straw that broke the former Mrs. Ted Turner’s back.
Well, things seem to go okay during the first meeting between Viola and Charlie, but things soon snowball down south from there, and rather quickly. The rest of the film involves a rather sophomoric cat and mouse game of hateful acts perpetrated between Viola and Charlie behind the back of the incredibly dumb and hapless Kevin. Some of the things they do to each other are good for a few laughs, but there is never that hint of sinister vengeance that permeated other better black comedies like THE WAR OF THE ROSES, for example. Most of the give and take between mother and future daughter-in-law are sort of preposterous in design and execution. One scene where Viola keeps Charlie up all night is good for a few chuckles, not to mention an impromptu lunch where she invites foreign dignitaries and the unknowing Charlie arrives dressed in something far less than formal.
Yet, as the film progresses, the acts get a bit crueler. Charlie drugs Viola and Viola spikes Charlie’s dinner with nuts (which, in a painfully awkward and forced moment, is revealed that Charlie is deathly allergic to them). All of this culminates to an ending where I scratched my head in disbelief – ya know, one of those endings where the mother realizes what a SOB she was and begs for forgiveness and all family members call a truce and live happily ever after…please!?
The material of the film should have inherently been more rough edged and harder and the film’s willingness to be blatantly clean and noble is sort of off-putting. The characters themselves are a mixed bag. Lopez does what she can with her limited role of Charlie and she is affectionate enough for us to realistically root her on. Sykes, as stated, is quietly the funniest voice of reason in the film (at one point she yells at Viola, “I have not seen you this nuts since you had to present that Emmy to the ladies from The View!”). Vartan is the most clueless character of the film. He’s a man that is smart enough to be a surgeon but is just too plain stupid to see what a hurtful creature his mom is. I have rarely seen such an on-screen wimp and simpleton in a film like Kevin.
Then there is Fonda herself, who plays the role with a vindictive mean streak and with her tongue placed squarely in her cheek. Yes, she is manic, hysterical, and unabashedly hyperactive in her role here and I sort of ate up every scenery chewing moment that she was in. It’s a blast seeing a woman of her stature take a role of such limited importance and instead have fun with her image and go for broke. MONSTER-IN-LAW is a moronically one-joke film, but Fonda’s grandstanding and pompous flamboyances make the same joke stretch itself out to be funny several times over. She roars through the film eating up everything in her path and manages to out-diva Jenny from the Block herself. Fonda is fiendishly and absurdly fun to watch in this film.
Yet, MONSTER-IN-LAW cannot be saved even by Fonda herself. The film is too predictable, too tame, and just too light-hearted of a comedy when it really wanted to be a black one with a more malicious heart and center. The film, however, is not the train wreck many have lead you to believe, and Fonda proves to be an undeniable trouper for digging her teeth into an unyielding and disingenuous psychopath. Again, what does she have to prove? Why can’t she play a loser in a broad farce after a 15 year sabbatical?
There is one scene where she is shown interviewing one of those Brittany Spears clones and discovers that this teen queen is too filled with naivety and self-importance that she has never read a newspaper. Filled with contempt for today’s youth, she leaps on to her and strangles the younger and more dim-witted woman during what would be her last TV appearance. When the scene is over I am not sure that there is an adult out there that didn’t cheer her on at that moment. It’s just a shame that her carnivorous performance was not done more of a service in a better and more focused black comedy. And, to all of you snobs out there, if Fonda wants to rip into a role with reckless abandon, she does not need our permission nor consternation. She plays the role right, it’s just that the rest of the film gets its tone wrong.