Directed by: Robert Luketic
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Jane Fonda, Michael Vartan, Wanda Sykes, Elaine Stritch, Adam Scott
Before someone decides to lambaste me for giving this fairly by-the-numbers comedy a four-star rating, I'd like to point out that there's a basic shortcoming to the whole star rating system: It doesn't take into account the necessity of a sliding scale based on the type of film and the intentions behind it.
Someone once called up Xpress outraged that I could give Million Dollar Baby two stars and Because of Winn-Dixie three and a half. Of course, the full explanation for that calculus is in the reviews themselves, but simply put, I don't approach a film that simply aims to provide two hours of entertainment in the same manner I approach one that announces to the world that it's important with a capital "I." Unless you make that kind of shift, you're going to be measuring every film against, say, Citizen Kane -- an approach that would prove unworkable.
So how does a silly movie like Monster-in-Law get four stars? By unashamedly being the best silly movie it can be -- and by drawing on three strong performers and director Robert Luketic's considerable panache.
The screenplay, by newcomer Anya Kochoff, offers a story line that's essentially an assemblage of cliches and contrivances. It adheres to formula as much as the recipe for Coca-Cola or the Colonel's secret herbs and spices, only it isn't as mysterious. Standard character types are put through the standard paces.
In this case, we have the much (and often unfairly) maligned Jennifer Lopez as Charlie, a slightly kooky noncareer girl. She's a professional temp who works as a receptionist, walks dogs and helps out with a friend's catering service, devoting her spare time to dabbling in fashion design. She lives in a picturesquely cluttered apartment on Venice Beach, complete with the obligatory gay best friend, Remy (Adam Scott, The Aviator), who drops in unannounced all the time. She bumps into and falls for a gorgeous doctor, Kevin Fields (Michael Vartan, One Hour Photo), and after a few misunderstandings of the Hollywood kind, they're in love.
However, as if to prove that the course of true love gathers no moss, there's a problem: Kevin's diva of a mother, Viola (Jane Fonda). She's fresh out of a rest home, following a breakdown that occurred when she was unceremoniously dumped from her TV-interview show by network execs looking for a younger demographic.
Viola, naturally, disapproves of her son's choice and sets out to break up the impending wedding -- with the aid of her smart-mouthed and not entirely willing secretary/assistant, Ruby (Wanda Sykes of Pootie Tang fame). This kind of plot was old even before movies existed, but when handled right -- as it is here -- it's the sort of entertainment that works on its own level.
Though it went largely unseen by most of the moviegoing world, director Luketic's last film, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!, took an equally aged-in-celluloid formula and stood it on its head in lots of clever ways. Perhaps because that film failed at the box-office (bad title, bad marketing, no big name stars), Luketic stands nothing on its head here (other than, perhaps, bringing the legendary Jane Fonda back to the movies after a 15-year absence). Instead, he revels in the situation the script hands him and plays it for all it's worth, coming up with a lightning-paced farce that pleases by doing exactly what you expect it to do, which, in this case, is also exactly what you want it to do.
Of course, the hook here is Fonda returning to the screen, and doing so in a knockabout comedy. It's a clever calculation that works, in part because she's so game at executing the script's requirements. But at the same time, her mother-in-law-from-hell is the best-drawn character in the film. As outrageous as she is, it's easy to understand some of her actions. And it's hard not to applaud her attempted strangling of the subject of her last interview -- a vapid Britney Spears' clone who thinks Roe vs. Wade was a boxing match and who proudly announces that she has never read a newspaper.
Still, the film is at its best when it goes for all out farce. The dinner party sequence is one of the funniest things I've seen in a while, and it boasts a line (Sykes' comment after Fonda knees her in the groin) that's destined to become a classic. No, it ain't high art, but if approached as a pleasant diversion, Monster-in-Law delivers the goods most of the time. And really, how can you not admire a movie that -- owing to Fonda's Vietnam-era activism and Lopez's love for fur -- might find itself picketed by veterans groups and PETA at the same time? Rated PG-13 for sex references and language.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke