An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            “Monster-In-Law” is a terrible mistake.  The movie stars Jane Fonda, the articulate woman who has written the fine new memoir, “My Life So Far.”  Fonda seems propelled in life, in the book, and now in the movie, by an irrepressible enthusiasm.  What she may not realize is that hers is such an intelligent, provocative voice that there is simply no need to transform herself into an embarrassing camp figure.  She picked the wrong script for her return to the screen.  The movie played, when I saw it, to deathly silence in the theater.  Comedies of this kind work only if somewhere under all the wisecracks and bickering there is at least a dollop of good will.  There is no good will here, not in the script, not among the actors.  There is no wink in anyone’s eye. 

                Playing Viola Fields, de-throned television interviewer, Fonda goes over the top from the beginning.  We are led to believe that Viola’s natural state is a kind of terminal temper tantrum, that the only time we hear her normal voice is when she is faking it, trying to make nice.  A two-hour temper tantrum is simply unendurable.

                The cause of all the fuss?  Viola’s son Kevin (Michael Vartan) is a doctor with so little credibility as such that you would run from him in a hospital.  On first sight – jogging on the beach –  he looks like a nice young guy.  But a doctor?  A lover?  A husband?  A son-in-law?  Kevin is a bystander in his own life, an observer with no real connection to his fiancé, his mother, or any of the others who cross his path.  He is a mere cipher, and that leaves a void at the center of the film since he is the person Viola and Charlie (Jennifer Lopez) are fighting over.  Who wants to fight over a cipher?  At first glance it’s a tale of a mother who can’t let go, but Fonda’s nerve-shattering performance makes innuendo and subtlety, even horselaughs, impossible. 

                Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez indulge in a throat-scratching catfight that is not a sight to remember.  Ms. Lopez comes across as insipid, certainly not a threat worthy of Fonda’s shrill wrath.  For most of the film, Fonda rages against empty air.  Wanda Sykes (who plays Ruby, Viola’s assistant) steals the movie, which is a little like stealing nickels from a parking meter, but even she has to work with weak lines.  As she telegraphs each verbal punch with great panache, you wait for the big punch line, and what comes out instead is a limp letdown.  The premise of a difficult mother-in-law is tried and true, but tried and true needs snappy writing and this script lets all the actors down.   

                About that dollop of necessary good will, it’s nowhere to be seen.  There is instead a mean spirit inhabiting the lines and the characters’ relationships, and that never works.


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