Jane Fonda coming back to the screen after a decade-and-a-half absence in Monster-in-Law is like Brando returning from the dead to star in a Police Academy movie.
Monster-in-Law isn't over-the-top: It's beneath-the-bottom. And I'm not referring to Jennifer Lopez's anatomy, although the script does, constantly. Lopez plays a virtuous Venice Beach, Calif., woman named Charlie (for Charlotte), who holds down several menial jobs while dreaming of designing dresses. Fonda plays Viola, a snooty, just-fired TV talk-show host who can't abide Charlie's engagement to her dreamboat surgeon son, Kevin (Michael Vartan).
Viola is a cartoon diva on the scale of Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians - and walking dogs is Charlie's steadiest job. Because the comedy is so broad and tasteless, I envisioned Viola eventually showing up in a canine-skin coat. But the movie doesn't do anything that daring. Pivoting on Viola's scheme to drive her prospective daughter-in-law crazy before the wedding, Anya Konchoff's script relies on hare-brained ploys and putdowns, then culminates in the clunkiest would-be heartwarming climax since Hollywood gave Our Town a happy ending back in 1939.
When Viola finds a way to move in with Charlie and Kevin and proceeds to gaslight her, some viewers may experience the special kind of claustrophobia only bad movies can induce.
The crowd-pleasing jokes are on the level of Viola slipping nuts in gravy so that Charlie will have a food-allergy attack (as Will Smith did in Hitch), and Charlie feeding Viola knock-out pills so she'll fall dead asleep into a plate of tripe. Apparently, the way to the mass audience's heart these days is through its upset stomach.
The movie doesn't develop the Tinkertoy logic to connect one scene to the next. I can understand why Charlie never stops dog-walking - maybe she love dogs - but why is she still checking stool samples as a temporary receptionist at a doctor's office if she's getting ready to wed a well-heeled surgeon? I'm not saying she should live off her man. But why isn't Kevin encouraging her to fulfill her designer fantasies - or at least helping her land a temp job in a classier office?
The lead women can't get any rhythm going until they resort to the back-and-forth battering of Punch-and-Judy dolls. They're both conceited performers embodying exhausted conceits.
A much-married, fabulously wealthy name-dropper who's been the favorite of world leaders and entertainment legends, Viola plays like a drag-club burlesque of one of Fonda's worst media images: the vicious liberal elitist. Fonda bares her fangs and gnashes through her scenes with the misplaced gusto of an actor clawing and biting her way back into public favor. It's the opposite of the integrity-filled performances in movies like They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Klute that made Fonda the key female star of America's movie renaissance in the 1960s and '70s. She even kept her dignity in the tearjerker On Golden Corn, I mean, Pond - something she can't do in a plate of tripe.
Lopez, for her part, softens her edge and acts the naive young maid until Charlie realizes Viola's strategy to thwart her marriage - and even then she's like a suburban remix of a street fighter.
Vartan brings some authentic charm to the early scenes as Kevin: He's got ardor and a hint of wit, and he doesn't push too hard - a blessing for us as well as Charlie. But not even he can transcend the character's stupidity when he denies the extent of his mother's viciousness.
Director Robert Luketic rarely rises above the material, whether with Charlie's wisecracking, problem-solving gay friend (Adam Scott) or her enterprising gal-pal, a caterer played by Annie Parisse of TV's Law and Order.
Wanda Sykes, who's unfailingly uproarious in HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, provides relief as Viola's personal assistant. She could be called long-suffering except that she refuses to suffer. Sykes rescues precious seconds of the movie with her no-holds-barred expressions of disgust. A master of attitude, she can make the timbre of her voice and every inch of her short body recoil at stupidity or ugliness. She brings a whiff of inspired deviltry to her delivery when she suggests that Viola might want to marry "another gay man," wistfully recalling, "that was fun."
Sykes relies on epithets from her standup act, but she backs them up with real comic fury. The blast of fresh air she brings to Monster-in-Law is the strongest argument in years for leaving expletives undeleted.
Starring Jennifer Lopez, Jane Fonda, Michael Vartan, Wanda Sykes
Directed by Robert Luketic
Released by New Line Cinema
Time 102 minutes
Sun Score * (1 star)