Friday, January 22, 2010

Fonda and Sykes give one-joke "Monster-in-Law" some laughs

Monster-in-Law (2005) 
95 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +

For her return to the big screen after a 15 year hiatus, Jane Fonda must've been ready to let her hair down. It shows in "Monster-in-Law, a gimmicky slapstick vehicle that makes she and boxing-ring opponent Jennifer Lopez look like diva vs. diva fools. Giving you exactly what you expect, it's mildly entertaining. 

J-Lo plays Charlie, a lovely, nice, sweet bohemian who meets Mr. Right in a ridiculously handsome surgeon (a bland Michael Varan). But the moment of truth comes when she has to contend with his mother, Viola Fields (Fonda, having a grand old time), a controlling harpy hot off a mental breakdown. As he proposes on the spot, Viola flips and immediately wages a war against her future daughter-in-law to sabotage her son's "sudden" relationship. When you marry a man, you also marry his mother. 

The stakes are so petty that this one-joke comedy is mostly an obvious, heavy-handed sitcom about mother- and daughter-in-law to-be "ripping" each other apart. Under Robert Luketic's direction from Anya Kochoff's puerile script, "Monster-in-Law" is often cheerfully wicked, with peanut-allergy pranks, literal bitch-slapping, and Jane's face falling flat in a plate of tripe, but it's too silly to be a really biting dark comedy. There's the thought of what directions someone as edgy as Danny DeVito would have taken with this material, as all is forgiven in an about-face of falsely sweet sentiment. 

The written page is a one-dimensional contrivance and few characters feel like real people, but you can't really fault Fonda for her game comedic turn. Viola is an over-the-top, borderline-psychotic caricature that Fonda is a delirious hoot and manages to get laughs. Lopez is always a warm, likable, and genuine presence, but her Charlie is so nice and child-like that you wish she had more of a backbone at times. By comparison, Wanda Sykes is much more subtle playing off some expertly-timed, hilariously-delivered wisecracks as her spunky, acerbic personal assistant Ruby. She's the biggest delight that comes out consistently unscratched in "Monster-in-Law." 

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