Film Reviews: Wednesday, May 11, 2005
Mama’s Bad to You

Crazy women make Monster-in-Law a mother of a bad movie.


Gather round, kids. I want to show you this new film, Monster-in-Law. You see the older woman on the screen? Her name is Jane Fonda. Look at her face carefully. Children, this is what happens when you have too much cosmetic surgery. Once beautiful in a fawn-like way, she now looks like something made out of crepe paper. Really, the filmmakers could have replaced her with one of those life-size Japanese bunraku puppets without making a difference.
It’s sad to witness, though not as sad as the movie itself, which is Fonda’s return to acting after a 15-year absence. She was a legitimate force in her time — her work in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Klute belongs in the pantheon of great performances. (Her work in Barbarella belongs in a different pantheon.) She seemed aimless and disinterested for at least a decade before her retirement, so it was good for her to take time off, particularly if that meant she’d come back refreshed and ready to take on something worthy of her talents.
That’s so not the case. She plays Viola, a famous Barbara Walters-like journalist who suffers a mental meltdown after being abruptly removed from her tv show in favor of a younger anchor. When she emerges from the sanitarium, she discovers that her son Kevin (Michael Vartan), a handsome and successful doctor, has become engaged to a lifelong temp worker named Charlie (Jennifer Lopez). Unable to bear the loss of her doted-on son, Viola all but declares war on the new woman.
The movie suffers from what Roger Ebert calls The Idiot Plot, in which the problems would be solved if all the characters weren’t idiots. Viola doesn’t care about Kevin’s happiness, Charlie doesn’t detect her future mother-in-law’s animus toward her until very late in the film, and Kevin just seems to oblivious to everything swirling around him. The only voice of reason here is Wanda Sykes as Viola’s bitchy but loyal assistant, and you know a movie’s in trouble when you’re anxiously looking forward to Sykes’ next appearance.
The attempts at farce are merely juvenile, but the sexism on display is downright hideous. This goes beyond subjecting Lopez and Fonda to things like too-tight dresses and windblown hairdos — that’s just part of normal slapstick comedy abuse. It’s the depths to which these characters sink in their fight over a man. Viola’s jealousy reaches insane proportions when she deprives Charlie of sleep and eventually poisons her after finding out she’s allergic to nuts. If she were depicted as a multi-dimensional person, that might be pitiable, but she’s just a dragon who’s taking out her professional and personal frustrations on an innocent party. Once Charlie catches on, she joins the battle with the same zest. The natural state of woman, this movie says, is psychosis, especially concerning men. The fact that the screenwriter is female is disappointing though not surprising. There are ordinary bad movies, and there are movies so offensive that they induce nausea, and in the latter group you’ll find Monster-in-Law. My little butter cup.

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