By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 13, 2005
EAGERLY AWAITED for Jane Fonda's return to the screen after a 15-year absence, "Monster-in-Law" practically begs for an actress capable of delivering an energetic, stem-winding performance in the title role. Or does it?
Fonda, playing the washed-up, alcoholic TV host and aging multi-divorcee, Viola Fields, lays down a loud, abrasive, vaguely incestuous imitation of Lady Macbeth. Her mission, in this case, is not murder but character assassination, when it becomes clear to Viola -- if no one else -- that her handsome, and newly engaged, doctor son, Kevin (Michael Vartan), is marrying beneath himself when he proposes to a bohemian artist named Charlie (Jennifer Lopez). Unfortunately, under all the histrionics and the increasingly over-the-top machinations, Fonda's crotchety Viola seems less in need of a Geritol than perhaps another midmorning martini to bring her energy level down a notch.
What is most ironic is that the still-feisty Fonda consistently allows her character to be upstaged by . . . her own sidekick. With little more than a judiciously raised eyebrow here and there and some acid-tongued asides, Wanda Sykes as Viola's personal assistant, Ruby, steals the spotlight from the star again and again. Oddly, that isn't because Fonda isn't trying hard enough, but because she's trying too hard.
Mostly, I blame first-time screenwriter Anya Kochoff, not Fonda. Why, for example, does Viola take such a violent and instantaneous dislike to Charlie after only one meeting? Because she slurps her tea? Come on, Charlie is obviously a beautiful, articulate and talented young woman. If either character were given more, well, character to work with -- if Charlie, say, were shown to be considerably more out of her element in, or hostile toward, her future mother-in-law's upper-crusty world -- Viola's antipathy would make more sense. As it is, Charlie is so wonderful about everything that Viola's ill will comes across less like snobbery (or even insanity, which would be my second choice) than racism. And casting a Latina in the fish-out-of-water role seems a kind of crude shorthand on the part of the filmmakers, meant to telegraph: uncultured, uncouth and unsophisticated .
What's more, Kevin's obliviousness to his mother's egregious behavior is, to put it mildly, implausible. How did this guy make it through medical school when he can't see that Viola is a harridan bent on derailing her only son's wedding? Don't you see, Kevin rationalizes to Charlie, Mother is just being a little "difficult," a little "challenging," but I still adore her. Now I've heard of mothers only a son could love, but this is ridiculous.
At one point, after Viola has managed to move in with Charlie and Kevin -- the better to torture her, my dear! -- Viola even tries to poison Charlie, who is allergic to nuts, by serving her gravy laced with crushed almonds. While this episode is treated as a lark by Kochoff and the director Robert Luketic ("Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!"), I couldn't help thinking that the threat of death by anaphylactic shock was somewhat out of place in a light comedy.
To be sure, "Monster-in-Law" has its comedic moments, especially when Charlie finally gets wise to Viola's scheme to drive a wedge between her and her fiance and starts to fight back with an arsenal of ever more creative psychological weapons. But the comedy, for the most part, is so weighed down by the grinding heavy-handedness of Viola's unpleasant character, and by Fonda's inability to find a way to strike a balance between the script's disconnect from both reality and farce, that this "Monster" is ultimately one flat-footed beast.
MONSTER-IN-LAW (PG-13, 101 minutes) -- Contains some obscenity, sexual humor and comic violence. Area theaters.