Genre: Comedy, Romance
Director: Robert Luketic
Screenwriters: Anya Kochoff
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Michael Vartan, Jane Fonda
Monster-in-Law is rests on a gimmick, and the gimmick works well, but nothing else works at all. That happens a lot with these ultra-high-concept stunt movies; everything outside the basic central conceit gets forgotten. The people behind this one scored a major coup when they got Jane Fonda to make this her first film role in fifteen years, but then they simply turned her loose, forgetting to put her in an actual screenplay. Every other character can be characterized entirely in terms of their reactions to Fonda; they do nothing of their own accord, they mean nothing, and they are nothing. This isn’t even a movie; it’s the very definition of what industry types cynically refer to as a “vehicle.”
But, okay, Jane Fonda. Yes. She comes out of retirement with a vengeance, tearing across the screen in a scheming, mean-spirited role that’s fun despite the inevitability that the script will let it down. The character, a legendary but recently fired tv gabber a la Barbara Walters, is inconsistent and insubstantial, an easy way for the film to whip out all the gags and pull all the emotional strings it wants. But it’s a hoot anyway; Fonda gets off several great lines as Viola, and the occasionally clever editing helps out. There’s a great moment when Viola’s precious son (Michael Vartan) proposes to Jennifer Lopez’s flaky dog-walker/temp and she runs off to drink mouthwash and meditate; “she’s probably calling all of her relatives,” someone says. “Spirit, surround me with light,” Viola replies.
But if Fonda appears to have moments of genius, it is only in contrast with everything around her. Lopez is a particular embarrassment; the problem is not in her performance so much as it is in her character’s utter lack of a personality, or any distinguishing features whatsoever. She is a zero, a blank; it is not only inexplicable that someone would be infatuated with her — J. Lo has a tendency to be hot until she opens her mouth — but it is a curiosity that she exists at all. But then it hits us: she exists so that she can have a wisecracking gay best friend (the most thankless role in the universe, taken on without much enthusiasm here by Adam Scott).
Speaking of wisecracking, the producers hired semi-famous comedienne Wanda Sykes for the sole purpose of delivering blunt one-liners as Viola’s personal assistant/best friend. As these things go, it is actually an inspired choice (“inspired” being an exceedingly relative term), since Sykes has terrific comic timing, and a personality that at least resists being diluted by the least-common-denominator hackery at play in the writing. If nothing else, she effectively counteracts the utter void that is Michael Vartan, who’s got a good thing going with Alias and should probably stick to it.
The ending is a stunning sham, enough to make your head spin; there is an entirely unmotivated about-face that manages to be false and bitter-tasting despite the fact that we are already watching non-characters non-interact. I had no emotional investment in anything that was going on, and still I was infuriated; it is such a cheap, cynical ploy, a happy-ending-at-all-costs approach that blithely tosses away everything, and I do mean everything, that came before. None of it was remotely significant or substantial, but it was there, dammit, and the movie should have respected at least that.
But my frustration is misplaced as well. Monster-in Law is a non-movie, and it simply does not care about any of these things. It merely wants to be liked by as many people as humanly possible and, well, it may have that. People at my screening seemed to be having a ball. But it’s stupid, the sort of bland, safe, deadly dull, focus-grouped type of “Hollywood” that angers me the most. Jane Fonda makes it out alive, but the movie never drew a breath to begin with.