Jane Fonda has meant a number of things to each decade in which she's lived in the public eye. In her early years, she was Henry Fonda's daughter. In the 1960s, she was Hollywood's talented sex kitten (see Barbarella). In the '70s, she was "Hanoi Jane," chatting up the Viet Cong and generally pissing off a lot of Americans. In the '80s, reinvented again, she was the fitness guru, and in the '90s, she was Mrs. Ted Turner. During most of that time, she was more than all of those things. She was an actress and quite a brilliant one at that: The China Syndrome, Klute, Coming Home, Julia, even 9 to 5. But then, just before marrying Ted in 1991, Fonda just stopped making movies, leading to an unfortunate 15-year absence.
Now, it is 2005, a decade not yet stamped with any particular Fonda notoriety, and she is back. In treacle. In Monster-in-Law.
Fonda plays Viola Fields, a Barbara Walters-style television interviewer who suffers a nervous breakdown on the set of her show, a show from which she has just been canned in favor of a fresh, young face. Her last interview is with a Britney Spears-esque twit who doesn't read the newspaper and thinks that Roe v. Wade refers to boxing. The breakdown (which I contend is psychotic rather than nervous) ends with Viola lunging for the songstress' throat on-camera. If you have seen the Spears interview with Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11, you too will understand the throat-lunging impulse.
Meanwhile, a perky young woman, Charlie (Jennifer Lopez), just can't seem to find love, even though she is smart, beautiful, creative, and fun. When fate has her meet a successful doctor (Alias star Michael Vartan), she falls quickly in love despite some insecurities about her lowly profession as an odd-job maven.
Counting Monster-in-Law, I have now seen three of Lopez's movies, and they all share that distinction. In Maid in Manhattan, Lopez was a humble maid trying to make ends meet while scoring with a promising politico. In Enough, she was a humble waitress who marries into a wealthy (and nuts-o) family and must overcome the class thing in order to feel good about herself and kill her abusive husband. In all three films, she considers herself undateable and an ugly duckling. I sense a pattern here. What is most certainly common in these films is that they are fantasies -- not the least of which is that women like Lopez cannot get dates.
Anyway, Mr. Right, er, Kevin, has a catch. It's his mom. Viola. She's spent months in the funny farm and is ready to meet the new girlfriend. Mom and Charlie hit it off so well that Kevin proposes marriage right there at their first meeting. Viola is sent into a psychotic rage so entire that it begins with casual sabotage of Charlie's happiness and ends with what could be attempted murder.
Monster-in-Law is, essentially, about a mother and a girlfriend duking it out over the affections of their wiener of a son/boyfriend. (Who proposes in front of their mother?) So, it's J-Lo and J-Fo. Who, oh, who will win? TV's Wanda Sykes appears as Viola's assistant and offers much needed comic relief, as does Broadway's Elaine Stritch, as the film's unfunny deus ex machina.
This film is, I think, a shrewd move for Fonda. The movie's no good (there -- that's my review), but it will make money, and Lopez will have a hit after a brief run of flops and media uninterest. But Fonda, whose autobiography just came out along with her fitness workouts on DVD, gets to make her Big Return in the low-stakes safety of this piffle while drawing attraction to those other projects. Monster-in-Law is like rebound sex -- inconsequential, forgettable, and it gets it out of the system. Without the nervous anticipation (does she still have it? how does she look?), her next film can be more appreciated.
Good for Jane. Good for us.