In the ring
May 11, 2005
Jeffrey K. Lyles
Staff Writer

New Line Productions

Jennifer Lopez (right) plays Charlie, who discovers that Viola (Jane Fonda) is the woman of her nightmares in "Monster-in-Law."

Fonda is the comeback kid in 'Monster-in-Law'

It's good to walk into a movie with low expectations, because every so often a gem like "Monster-in-Law" pleasantly surprises you.

The film seems to be a "Meet the Parents" from the female perspective--the sympathetic female lead trying to get her new mother-in-law to let her boy go--but it's more than a simple rip off. In many ways, "Monster" outdoes its likely inspiration.

Not only does the collaboration between Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez shine, but the film adds new depth to the "overbearing in-law" theme after the Robert DeNiro/Ben Stiller franchise, which was content to offer cats flushing toilets for laughs.

Lopez ("Shall We Dance") stars as Charlie, a temporary worker Jill-of-all-trades hoping to meet that special someone. While working one of her numerous temp jobs, Charlie meets Kevin (Michael Vartan, ABC's "Alias"), a charming doctor who is smitten after his first encounter with Charlie. Kevin is used to socialites, so Charlie's down-to-earth demeanor is appealing.

The nature of Kevin and Charlie's relationship feels like one of those all-too-familiar romantic comedies, but Lopez and Vartan make for an attractive couple that would overcome the cliches.

But that's a different movie--"Monster" is about Kevin's domineering mother, Viola (Fonda in a great comeback following 1990's "Stanley and Iris"), a TV news anchor who is still reeling from being replaced by a younger, sexier host.

Meeting Charlie and having Kevin propose to her on the same day doesn't sit well with Viola, who is also fresh off a stay at a mental health clinic. Desperately afraid that she'll be replaced once again by a younger upstart, Viola decides she'll be the worst potential mother-in-law and "save" her son from ruining his life.

Viola doesn't mess around. She hires investigators to check out Charlie, fakes an anxiety attack and even manages to crash with Charlie while Kevin's away at a conference.

Fonda is a riot, bringing such an energy to her scenes that she's the center of a whirlwind--you follow wherever her path of destruction leads. This is her movie, and she dominates it every step of the way while being just restrained enough to avoid looking like another hair-brained, goofy movie character.

Director Robert Luketic ("Legally Blonde") does an excellent job of getting the most out of the supporting cast, specifically his leads' sidekicks.

Wanda Sykes plays Ruby, Viola's assistant and occasional co-conspirator, and the duo has a solid chemistry. In addition, Adam Scott ("Torque") gets big laughs as Charlie's gay best friend, Remy.

Luketic doesn't overdo a good thing, though, and smartly lets Sykes and Scott get their witty one-liners in without overexposing them as the first line of comedic relief.

Instead of having the entire film revolve around Viola driving Charlie crazy, first-time screenwriter Anya Kochoff ignores the temptation to let Fonda carry the entire proceedings. Charlie catches on to Viola's schemes, providing the movie with a refreshing give-and-take dynamic. Kochoff's timing is perfect, and the paybacks start just as Charlie has become a sympathetic character.

The ever-shifting balance of power raises the film to another level and gives it the necessary momentum to cruise to the finish line while keeping the audience laughing.

I didn't think this genre had much to offer after "Meet the Parents," but Fonda and Lopez take a tired concept and give it new life--creating a crowd-pleaser.