by Ed Symkus

There's really only one thing that can be recommended in this new comedy from first-time writer Anya Kochoff and director Robert Luketic (who brought us Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!) No, it's neither one of their talents. No, it's not the "breakout" performance by leading man Michael Vartan, whose acting resume includes such gems as The Next Best Thing and Never Been Kissed. And no, it's certainly not the truly mundane acting from Jennifer Lopez. (Hey, wait a minute -- isn't she supposed to be some kind of singer?)

No surprise, really, that the single positive ingredient of this forgettable piece of fluff is a terrific and terrifically funny star turn by Jane Fonda in a role that has as much screen time as is given to Lopez, but makes gigantic, dizzying rings around hers.

Fonda's success shouldn't surprise anyone. In these days of practically every film ever made being available for rental, it's fairly easy to see the comedy work Fonda has done before -- always, in my mind, better than her generally over-acted dramatic fare. An early example was Cat Ballou, in which she was downright sassy, and later she showed that she was having lots of fun in Fun With Dick and Jane, although the material was below her. Barefoot in the Park, Nine to Five, and others proved that she knew how to get a laugh, even if it was just a lighthearted one.

With Monster-in-Law, a film whose level of quality is way below her, Fonda manages to rise above it all, somehow bypassing the often moronic dialogue and even delving into slapstick. She plays Viola, a wealthy TV newsmagazine host (a la Barbara Walters) who, in the first couple of minutes, learns that she's being replaced by some younger, "new, improved" model who's better fitted for the demographic. She proceeds to freak out over the news and literally dive into the aforementioned slapstick.

Viola is the mother of handsome young surgeon Kevin (Vartan), who inexplicably is without a girlfriend and so, in the "sharp-witted" mind of screenwriter Kochoff, is an obvious target for a series of gay jokes.

Along comes perky, superstitious, ever-smiling (to the point of annoyance) Charlotte or (to her friends, of course) Charlie (Lopez). Good ol' Charlie, who can't or doesn't have the ability to make up her mind about what to do for a living, instead does everything. She temps in a doctor's office, she walks dogs -- usually four or five at a time -- she helps out with her friend's catering company, she's a yoga instructor, a Little League coach, and a budding artist. Oh yeah, she has two friends. The gal, Morgan (Annie Parisse) is less perky and pretty normal. But the guy, Remy (Adam Scott), is the next-door neighbor who continually barges in without knocking (can you say Kramer?) and is gay. Why does the female lead's best guy pal always have to be gay? I'm not going to bother listing the other films this is ripped off from. Let's just call it an out-of-control clich & eacute;.

Besides, it's a minor glitch in a film full of full-fledged bad ideas.

Boy meets girl, girl likes boy, boy decides to take it to the next level. It's just a short while before the three characters get together at mom's luxurious home, where Fonda begins to enjoy herself by creating the hellish creature of the title, and not holding back with it. In one of the very few interesting plot points, she conceals her immediate (and unexplained) dislike for her only son's new girlfriend, but says whatever is on her mind to her assistant Ruby (Wanda Sykes in the most laid-back performance of her career).

But while Fonda brings class and craziness to the film, Lopez, even when her character is given the opportunity to come alive with a little venom of her own, just can't get past that sweet, smiling shtick. She is some bad actress. And Vartan, stuck with one of the worst-written parts in a long time, must deal with playing a supposedly smart fellow who's totally na & iuml;ve about the situation spinning around him. "Yeah, she's a little eccentric," he says of his mom when she finally goes bonkers on Charlie.

This goes on and on for just over 100 minutes, when finally Kochoff reaches into the void and pulls out a happy ending that completely ignores everything that's come before. Did the filmmakers think we weren't watching? Ah, if only that were the case.

Publication date: 05/12/05

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