One Tame Shrew

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 13, 2005

If there is nothing like a dame, as Rodgers and Hammerstein have argued, then why didn't the makers of "Monster-in-Law" hire a dame? Instead, to play a mother-in-law calculated to frighten Godzilla, they hired a lady.

She's a great lady, of that there's no doubt, but she doesn't seem to have the relish for battle, the lust for blood that a true dame would have. I speak, of course, of Jane Fonda, much ballyhooed in her return to filmmaking after 15 years.

Fonda has been recruited to play the truly appalling Viola Fields, a kind of Barbara Walters clone who, jettisoned from her fancy network job, turns all her fury and narcissistic self-regard into enmity toward the lush innocent whom her son, what's-his-name, is about to marry.

I kept thinking how much better this film would be with a genuine USS Woman o' War in the title role. Bette Midler, call your agent. Meryl Streep, move them Oscars on the mantel over to make room for this one! Hey, Glenn Close, go to town! Kathleen Turner, why are you on Broadway when we need you?

It's not that Fonda is bad. She's not. She's game, brave, even reckless, willing to try a brand of physical comedy she's never tried before, ready to risk looking foolish. Plus, she looks fabulous. No, it's that her special thing as an actress has always been a certain tension; like her father, she seemed a reluctant performer, and that sense of repression, of holding back, was her signature. She even seemed fragile as a prostitute in her Oscar-winning performance in "Klute" all those years ago.

In this film, you never feel her character's need to dominate and humiliate and control, things that other actresses might have brought to the role. And although the script gives her ample opportunity to show the wrong stuff, she doesn't revel in it; as she confesses in her recent autobiography, she's a pleaser, and Viola, by her very nature, is a pompous displeaser.

Then, too, she seems overpowered by Jennifer Lopez, the betrothed, who seems about as innocent as a snub-nosed .357 magnum no matter how hard she tries. You see this young woman and you think: She's nobody's chump. She knows the scene, the angles, the score. You wouldn't cross her and live to tell the tale. In this role, she's all radiant, sensual flesh and life force and her powerful body heat seems to make the super-thin Fonda waif-like, almost porcelain.

So there you have it: In a movie about diva-to-diva warfare, each diva is miscast. In fact, as a performance vehicle, the movie would make a lot more sense if the roles were reversed, Lopez as Mother Death, Fonda as Ms. Hospitality.

As the movie sets up, Fonda's Viola, a la Walters, is on a first-name basis with all the heads of state in the Western world; but her reign is over and she loses her network job to a girl she thought had been sent to fetch coffee for her. Angry and near breakdown, she makes an on-the-air lunge for the throat of a particularly stupid Britney Spearsian kewpie doll type during an interview. How a dame could have brought this one off! Can you imagine the raptor's glee with which a Midler or a Streep would have gone after that banal certitude of the dim young singer, that almost Zen-pure emptiness? (A good line from Anya Kochoff's script: The young singer doesn't approve of Roe v. Wade because she's against boxing!).

Meanwhile, son Kevin, the least doctorly doctor ever seen (he'd be eaten alive by the predators on "Grey's Anatomy"), is jogging on the beach, where he encounters the beautiful Charlie (J. Lo) walking dogs. He bumblingly starts a conversation to which she bumblingly responds. In today's hyper-sophisticated, sexually powerful hook-up culture, "bumbling" is, of course, code for sexual inexperience, which also means "nice," "innocent" and of course "borrrr-ing." And they are. Anyhow, soon enough, the two have connected romantically. Though there's no apparent chemistry between them outside of the script, Kevin asks for her hand. Viola is appalled because her son deserves so much better than someone so common.

What's the fuss about? The young actor who plays Kevin, ----------------, is one of those utterly disposable Melrose Avenue faces, lurking behind a half-week's beard and a moppy tangle of hair occluded by a quart of mousse, Vaseline or possibly even Valvoline. So vaguely did what's-his-name -- what is his name? -- register that he could have been exchanged with any of the young actors in "Mindhunters" and it would have affected neither movie a whit!

The film, directed by Robert Luketic, labors nearly an hour to set up this situation before it finally gets down to business, which is Viola's campaign to undercut the unworthy Charlie in any way possible, while Kevin is so busy mussing his hair just so that he fails to notice. Charlie, for her part, seeks to muster the hidden strength to stand up to T-Rex in Gucci sandals. The two gals wage mujer-a-mujer combat for a while, mainly in the form of Fonda's prissy egocentric archness pitched against Lopez's insincere sincerity.

Sometimes it's kind of funny; mostly it's not. Only Adam Scott, who plays a gay friend of Charlie's, really registers (far more than what's-his-name; and okay, his name is Michael something), and when you see him it will drive you nuts because he has a distinctively sharp face familiar from . . . somewhere. (To increase your movie-going pleasure, let me ID him up front: Scott played Howard Hughes's oily Hollywood publicity guy in "The Aviator.")

Then there's Wanda Sykes in the straight-from-the-'50s role as the sassy black maid, a cliche that didn't need to be reinvented for our time. You'd expect her in a movie starring Henry, not Jane, Fonda. Sykes tries hard and she, too, registers with some force, but the part was just unnecessary.

In the end, "Monster-in-Law" is so tame and limp, it may actually give mothers-in-law a good name.

Monster-in-Law (102 minutes at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual references (but no sex) and some profanity.

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