New Line // 2005 // 100 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // September 19th, 2005
Viola Fields: What do you do for fun?
Pop Star: I love watching really old movies. They're my favorite.
Viola Fields: Really? Really? Which ones?
Pop Star: Well, "Grease" and "Grease II." Um, "Benji." I love "Benji." "Free Willy," um..."Legally Blonde," "The Little Mermaid."
Ladies and gentlemen...Announcing the fight of the century! It's "Hanoi Jane" versus "Jenny From the Block" in an all-out screen comedy war. See them both go nuts, make screwy faces, and wear outrageous clothes in a light romantic comedy called Monster-In-Law. It's the "lightweight" versus "heavyweight" match of all time, brought to you by the same "promoter" who directed Legally Blonde and Win a Date With Tad Hamilton. Place your bets now. Who will win the title belt? Will it be the exotic Latina with the hypnotic booty, or will the over-sixty screen legend who still does aerobics, coming out of retirement, take her down?
Charlie (Jennifer Lopez, Anaconda) is a free-spirited resident of Venice Beach. She works a million temp jobs all at once (dog walker, doctor's office receptionist, cater waiter), and aspires to be a fashion designer. She's never had a lot of luck in love, but some chance encounters with a surgeon named Kevin (Michael Vartan, Alias) changes all of that. Soon her best girlfriend and obligatory wacky gay neighbor are screaming over the rock that she got from her soon-to-be husband. But Charlie is in for a surprise. Kevin may be perfect, but he's a Mama's boy, with a mother who is not ready to let him go. Viola Fields (Jane Fonda, On Golden Pond) is a newswoman forced into retirement due to her anger issues and alcoholism. Now she has little else to do but sabotage her son's nuptials to the exotic Latina without a real job, with some help from her wisecracking assistant (Wanda Sykes, Pootie Tang).
Jane Fonda has been absent from films since appearing with Robert De Niro in Stanley and Iris in 1990. The woman who brought to life such rich characters as Bree Daniels in Klute picked a simple romantic comedy with Jennifer Lopez to make her grand return to the screen. Is she nuts? Not really. Jane knows something most critics ignore -- people like simple silly comedies. You can't get much more simple or silly than Monster-In-Law. Let's not forget that Jane's costar in 1990, fellow screen legend Robert De Niro, appeared in not one, but two stupid silly movies about a man marrying his daughter. He even had Blythe Danner, Dustin Hoffman, and Barbara Streisand along for the ride! Despite all critical knee-jerk reactions that Monster-In-Law is clichéd in all the worst ways, it made money and brought Fonda back into the Hollywood fold. The movie arrives on DVD with a two disc special edition, with Fonda's face front and center over Vartan and Lopez. Jane's no dummy.
Critics were not kind to Monster-In-Law, and if you surf the Net, most comments posted by people on the movie web sites are not exactly glowing either. The movie is a cliché, and it makes little sense. Truly, Monster-In-Law is a mess in many ways, but mostly it's too thin to feel like anything more substantial than a skit. We are never given enough background to understand why Viola and Charlie are willing to almost literally kill each other over the proposed marriage. Seriously, they get to the point of drugging and poisoning each other. Both women seem smarter than what they end up doing; it's hard to believe an aspiring fashion designer and a worldly reporter couldn't find at least some common ground. The whole movie cruises along with the two going at each other's throats for no reason, as if that's supposed to be funny enough to warrant an entire film. But is the cream puff status of the film any surprise when you notice Robert Luketic is the director? This is the young man from Sydney who brought us equally light fare like Legally Blonde, Win a Date With Tad Hamilton, and is ramping up the Dallas remake. Luketic seems to be specializing in films that are lighter than air in the script department, but marvelously designed (wardrobe, lighting, and cinematography here are great). Kind of as if Baz Luhrman decided to make sitcoms.
Basically the film boils down to: let's all watch Jane and J-Lo go nutso and see who wins. Even the advertising campaign for the movie had a "Fonda versus Lopez" vibe, as if the two were going to box. They do end up in a vicious but girlie slap fight before it's all over, and by the time the promised catfight comes, it's clear who the winner is. Fonda tramples Lopez just because she relies more on talent and less on charisma than her "keeping it real" costar. Jane knows the secret to comedy -- commitment. Actors often say drama is where you want something, and comedy is when you really really really want something. Fonda commits to her character 1000% (rumor has it she was basing her character on Ted Turner) and imbues Viola with a crackling energy that insures the audience is going to love her no matter what happens. Lopez seems to rely on her simple likeability, and in the process seems too understated to even come close to the pitch Fonda is working at. Jane is acting as if the Oscar is hanging in the balance, and Lopez is just reaching for a People's Choice award. These are two fine actresses working with two different methods. Yes, I consider Jennifer Lopez a talent, and point any doubters to her skilled turns in Selena and Out of Sight. She's got the goods. This is just a trite script that Fonda knows how to trump better than her younger costar. Let's face it, Fonda has been in more screwball comedies like 9 to 5 than Lopez has.
In the supporting actor category, Wanda Sykes comes the closest to matching Fonda in terms of performance. Whenever the two of them are on screen, you almost wish the movie had centered solely on Viola's relationship with her assistant. They have an amazing chemistry. Sykes knows exactly how to nail every one liner with the skill of a woman who has succeeded in standup comedy. Poor Michael Vartan as the son is in the Lopez camp, and just tries to play it all straight and simple. He's so bland here he fades into the walls of the set, unless he has his shirt off. He should have demanded he play his entire part nude so he would have gotten noticed. Wardrobe was his enemy. The rest of the cast is forgettable, with the exception of a wonderful cameo by Broadway legend Elaine Stritch.
Despite the fact Monster-In-Law is hardly an important film, New Line has treated it as if it won the Best Picture Oscar. The movie is given a two disc treatment that covers every aspect of the film in depth. There are five featurettes that focus on Fonda's return, Lopez, Vartan, Luketic, the fashion design, and why the movie was filmed in Los Angeles. We get a treasure trove of deleted scenes -- many of which should have been in the film, because they help immensely. A lot of Wanda Sykes's performance hit the floor for some reason, and we get to see her and Fonda do more than they do in the film proper. There is also a payoff to a dress dilemma that seemed silly to cut out. There are some priceless bloopers where we get to see the cast laughing good-naturedly at each other. The set seemed to be more fun than the movie itself. In a smart move, both fullscreen and widescreen transfers are included on the first disc. The transfer is gorgeous, and colors pop appropriately for a comedy of this tone. The surround mix is well-realized, with some nice ambient noises coming from all speakers while the dialogue remains center stage in the front speakers. Fans of the movie or the stars will be happy as clams to get this set. It's truly a wonderful DVD package.
Monster-In-Law is nothing great. It's a broad comedy that isn't all that funny. Yet somehow just watching Fonda come back to the screen is an amazing experience. File it under "guilty pleasure" and move on. As a rental it has much to recommend it. If you're looking for that elusive "perfect date movie," or if you're in the mood for some "check your brain at the door" silly light comedy fare, it's a solid choice. I'd hardly say this is a collector's choice to round out the ultimate DVD collection, but New Line provides enough extra material to make it a classic example of how to support a release with technical flair and plenty of added value. Kudos to them for upping the ante on commercial releases, which often get barebones versions since they will sell well no matter what.
Guilty of being clichéd and silly, Monster-In-Law is fluffy fare that shouldn't be important. The cinema hardly needs another formula comedy that plays it safe without even a hint of a logical script. Fonda is the only reason to see it, but the court reprimands her for making a purely commercial decision to make her a bankable star-about-to-hit-seventy. She's a smart cookie, but I want to see more Klute-level roles, and less 9 to 5.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Blooper Reel
* Deleted Scenes
* Ruby's Make-up Bag
* Five "Behind the Scenes" Featurettes
* How to Look Like Jane Fonda
* Look at Jennifer Lopez