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Fonda's fine performance gets buried under the fluff
Seattle Times movie critic
Essentially an excuse to show off numerous cream-colored interiors and envy-inducing furniture, "Monster-in-Law" is a comedy without laughs and a catfight without claws.
It is also, however, Jane Fonda's first film in 15 years, and noteworthy for that reason alone: The granite voice is in fine form, and Fonda can still do wonders with a raised eyebrow.
Perhaps next time, though, Fonda might want to pick a screenplay with some bite to it; "Monster-in-Law" dissolves into nothingness whenever she leaves the frame, let alone the scene. The pretty sofas and curtains are nice, but 102 minutes is a long time to look at a home-furnishings catalog.
The biggest problem here is Jennifer Lopez as Charlie, the impossibly sweet young girl-of-all-trades at the center of the story. Rewind your memory to 1998's "Out of Sight" and remember that Lopez is capable of nuanced, sexy, smart work. But these days, with her current string of glazed-over, forgettable good-girl roles ("Maid in Manhattan," "The Wedding Planner," "Shall We Dance?"), she's become almost completely blank on screen.
She looks exquisite ("You always look so clean and shiny," Fonda tells her, and it's not particularly funny, because it's true) and floats through the movie, girlishly cooing her lines and stroking her hair extensions, never really connecting to the other actors or to the camera.
So, Charlie's a very, very nice girl who walks dogs and passes trays and does various odd jobs (which, presumably, pay for the extensions, the chic outfits and the gorgeous apartment) and has bad luck with men.One day, while she's busy being nice to a barista, she meets Kevin (Michael Vartan, in perfectly calibrated stubble), a cute doctor. They date, they fall in love and, just as the audience is ready for a nap, they go to meet his mother.
Viola (Fonda) is a wealthy, Oprah-ish talk-show host who has just lost her job and who thinks that Charlie isn't good enough for her son. Things deteriorate quickly, and soon the women are cartoonishly shrieking, hissing and playing nefarious tricks on each other; a pair of well-dressed harpies.
Unfortunately, almost none of this is funny. Lopez isn't funny; she's too carefully controlled. Vartan isn't funny, and the movie's not especially interested in him anyway — he just exists as a reason for the two women to cross paths.
Fonda is occasionally funny, rising above the material with grande-dame attitude and a touch of brittle rage, which might more effectively have been aimed at whoever saddled her with this script. Wanda Sykes, as Viola's long-suffering assistant, and Elaine Stritch provide a few laughs, but their scenes — particularly Stritch's — are brief.
Director Robert Luketic, who showed a gift for perky comedy with "Legally Blonde," is out of his depth here; perhaps the combined diva power of Lopez and Fonda was too much for him, or perhaps he and screenwriter Anya Kochoff are simply uninterested in making a movie that isn't nice. (It's never made clear exactly why Viola hates Charlie so much — that would be, apparently, too mean — and the movie's conclusion is so sweet as to completely defy logic.)
For its premise, "Monster-in-Law" needs a much darker comic sensibility and a more fearless approach.
Watch this movie for the outfits, the interior decoration and for Fonda, and think of what might have been.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company