Meet the Fonda: They shoot mothers, don't they?

Published May 12, 2005 in issue 0419 of the Hook

BY STEVE WARREN FILM@READTHEHOOK.COM

If you've heard anything at all about Monster-in-Law, you know it's essentially a distaff version of Meet the Parents, with Jane Fonda in the equivalent of the role played by Robert De Niro (coincidentally her co-star in Stanley and Iris, her last film, 15 years ago).

Mother doesn't make her entrance for over a quarter of an hour, giving us time to get acquainted with her son, Dr. Kevin Fields (Michael Vartan), and the woman he falls in love with, Charlie (Jennifer Lopez). Charlie, although she has some artistic and designing ability, works as a dog walker, cater waiter and, as Viola (Fonda) will later say with con-temp-t, "a temp."

Viola is a Barbara Walters clone, a legendary TV journalist who's gotten all the "gets." When the network replaces her with a perky young blonde, she has an on-air meltdown while interviewing another perky young blonde and is institutionalized for several months.

Waiting when she gets out is her trusty but sassy assistant, Ruby (Wanda Sykes, firmly establishing herself as the new Thelma Ritter– and if you don't know who that is, stop reading and go rent All about Eve).

Soon Kevin brings Charlie home to meet his mother and proposes right in front of her. Viola needs all of her own and Fonda's acting skills to keep her composure until the newly-engageds leave. Then Ruby tries to calm her down: "What you need is a project– or another husband. Why don't you marry another gay guy? That was fun." (Viola divorced her third husband when she caught him sleeping with her second husband.)

From then on it's war– undeclared at first, but later declared, though with Kevin none the wiser. He keeps trying to excuse his mother– a combination of Auntie Mame and Cruella de Vil– as "a little difficult" and "a little eccentric." Charlie wins the first round, in which Viola throws a lavish engagement party to intimidate her. Viola wins the second by faking another breakdown so she can move in with the kids and drive Charlie crazy.

Viola uses Kevin's old girlfriend Fiona (Monet Mazur) as a kind of attack dog to get rid of Charlie. She also sends Ruby to get some dirt on her son's fiancée but is disappointed with the result: "She's had fewer lovers in her entire life than you had on the closing day of Woodstock."

But there are several skirmishes to go before an ending that's not too simplistic, actually spelling out some details instead of just saying love conquers all. It involves an appearance by Elaine Stritch, a perky old blonde.

Monster-in-Law is irresistible fun, even if it's not as downright hilarious as Meet the Parents. While J.Lo is still a better dramatic actress (Selena and Gigli, although the latter wasn't supposed to be a drama) than a comedienne (The Wedding Planner and Maid in Manhattan), she gets better each time she attempts comedy and certainly gets the romantic moments right.

As for J.Fo, since Klute, she's always been able to do anything as an actress. This is her first time playing an "old broad" (a relative term once Stritch appears) and she does it with a spirit as perfect as her timing. Vartan does everything expected of a lovable hunk in this kind of thing, and Sykes couldn't be better.

Charlie is established early on as an orphan, so there won't be any Fockers for Kevin to meet in a sequel, but surely someone can come up with more lives for Viola to meddle in, with Ruby at her side. They're the most memorable couple in Monster-in-Law.