Monster-in-Law: Silly Comedy Starring Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez

In “Monster-in-Law,” her big comeback after 15 years absence from the screen, Jane Fonda digs into her part with such campy relish that she seems to be having an actor’s holiday. Just seeing Fonda doing what she has never done before–being outrageously eccentric–may justify the price of admission for a sharply uneven comedy that recycles old clichs in a calculated but not particularly inspired manner.

Camp films both rest on and disclose their narrative form, and “Monster-in-Law” is no exception. Camp is indeed the operative word for Robert Luketic’s farce–and a deliberate and gay camp at that. Pure camp is always nave, but the deliberate camp in this movie is less satisfying. Intermittently, “Monster-in-Law” feels like an exercise in self-indulgence, in which camp ceases to be a style and becomes an end in itself. Luketic also falls victim to his wish to have it both ways: Play camp for camp’s sake, but also play camp as borderline straight. The gimmick doesn’t work and the film’s seams are too visible.

Luketic, who’s quickly establishing himself as Hollywood’s new women’s director (a George Cukor for our times) is a young director with strong commercial instincts and penchant for gay sensibility. After stumbling with “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton,” his sophomore jinx, Luketic is back on terra ferma with his third comedy. “Monster-in-Law” is not as fun and fluffy entertainment “Legally Blonde,” the film that made Reese Whitherspoon a household name, but it’s better than “Tad Hamilton.”

As a comeback vehicle, “Monster in Law” might not be the best choice for Fonda, who was always more interesting as a dramatic actress blessed with an incredibly rich and resonant voice. The only way for a talented actress like Fonda to play such a familiar, borderline clich game, is to camp it out. Indeed, even when Fonda is over-the-top, which is half of the time, she’s riveting to watch.

This is particularly evident in her scenes with Jennifer Lopez, a beautiful star who’s not much of an actress. Whereas Fonda takes risks that sometimes pay off and sometimes don’t, Lopez just repeats the same formula, again playing a nice, simple, uneducated girl. Lopez plays the same role she had in “Maid in Manhattan,” an unsophisticated, down-to-earth Latina who falls for a WASPish prince (Ralph Fiennes in the former film), who’s above her class and sophistication level. Lopez is a limited actress, but penalizing herself with stereotypically submissive roles may not be a shrewd career move.

I dwell on Fonda and Lopez, because “Monster-in-Law” is very star-driven. It’s a major reward seeing a mainstream Hollywood film in which not one but two women are above the title, with the third character, a man (played by Michael Vartan), as second banana.

“Monster-in-Law” belongs to the subgenre of “dislocation” comedy, in which an individual is thrown into a new world that has its own mores and values. The character undergoes a journey, during which she has to learn a lesson. She starts with a desire–getting married in this movie–that by the end of the story is turned on its head.

The film’s premise is rather simple: After years of looking for Mr. Right, Charlotte “Charlie” Cantilini (Lopez) finally finds a man of her dreams, Kevin Fields (Vartan), only to discover that his mother, a grand dame named Viole Fields (Fonda) is the ultimate nightmare, a castrating, domineering mom who thinks her son is better than the women he’s dating.

A recently fired news anchor (possibly modeled on Barbara Walters), Viola is afraid she would lose her son the way she has just lost her career–and husbands. Determined to scare off her son’s new fiance, she uses every trick in her arsenal, turning into the world’s worst mother in law. After a series of abuses and humiliations, some in private some in public, Charlie decides to retaliate and fight back with full gusto. Gloves literally come off as Charlie and Viola battle it off to see wholl emerge triumphant, who is the alpha-female.

In recent years, American comedies have become too zany. Almost every character in our comedies is eccentric, which means there’s no one to play off against the zaniness. In “Monster-in-Law,” the stiff shirt is Viola’s son, Kevin. Kevin is the perfect catch, a handsome, successful, and caring doctor. He possesses all the personality traits women look for in a husband; the only thing wrong with him is his mother. Since the relationship between Charlie and Kevin is the movie’s through-line, without a solid straight man to deal with these zany and crazy women, there’s no comedy

Writer Anya Kochoff has shrewdly arranged for Viola to have a longtime companion-assistant, Ruby (Wanda Sykes), who’s also sort of a “straight” character. While Ruby does her best to help Viola execute her schemes against Charlie, she tries to do it within limits and reason. In the end, Ruby emerges as the one sober voice in the story. Sykes creates an incredible duo with Fonda, and their camaraderie not only offers insights into Viola’s persona, but also stands on its own as good comedy acting.

The inspiration for Kochoff’s debut script came from years of conversations she has had with her girlfriends, who would compare notes with other newly married couples. Kochoff rediscovers a treasure trove of often funny but also familiar incidents in the old “in-laws” movie formula.

Realizing that in telling these family squabbles, viewers and listeners are usually more sympathetic to the mother’s character of the mother, she has decided to tell the story from the girl’s point of view. Kochoff wanted the audience to experience what it’s like to adopt a new family, and to appreciate how difficult it can be for the women marrying the sons of their soon-to-be mother-in-laws.

“Monster-in-Law” is based on the old saying, that when you marry a guy, you also marry his family. It’s hard enough to deal with the idiosyncrasies of your own relatives without taking on the problems of a whole new family. The movie is about being so excited to meet the man of your dreams, only to realize that there’s an entirely separate set of issues that come with it, because even perfect love has its drawbacks. The comedy is the story the bride-underdog overcoming those drawbacks. Most of the fun, however, is watching a mother who behaves against type and goes totally out of control.

The movie also looks at today’s mores from a generational standpoint, juxtaposing Charlie’s with those of Viola’s. Like most career women of her age, Viola was focused and driven, and committed to do everything in a certain way and at a certain time of her life. Some of the laughs derive from watching these two generations pitted against each other as rivals.

Charlie is a free-spirited girl who hasn’t tied herself down to anything because of her own fears of commitment. She’s used to running away when relationships get too close or too complicated. One of the hurdles she has to overcome is learning how to stick it out and deal with problems. She decides she’s going to make it work because she really loves Kevin. To that extent, she determines to beat Viola at her own game.

It’s hard to find a romantic comedy with a fresh premise, and “Monster-in-Law” is anything but fresh. Nonetheless, the film’s title should help the marketing campaign, because the audience has a strong connection to it through a universal theme, even before seeing the picture. This is what works in favor of “Meet The Parents,” which revolves around the same issue only in gender reversal, the story of a rigid father (De Niro) who disapproves of clumsy and unworthy son-in-law (Ben Stiller). “Monster-in-Law” delivers the title’s promise and the basic goods expected of the subgenre.

Fonda says she had been sent many scripts throughout her years of retirement, but was too busy with other pursuits to contemplate returning to Hollywood. Whether it was kismet or the planets aligning just right, Fonda felt the time had come to try her hand at acting again. Unable to fully explain what motivated her to return to the big screen, Fonda says: “I can’t explain it, but I was ready and some vibe must have drifted into the atmosphere because people started calling my agent. I am a different person than I was 15 years ago, and I was curious to see how that would read onscreen and whether that would affect my work.”

Fonda brings her considerable presence to match the size of a character that viewers are familiar and can identify with. She is an actress you’d never expect to see in this role, because she has never played the villain. However, despite taking admirable risks that disregard her status as an actress, ultimately, Fonda gives a performance that’s too calculated, and even studied.

“Monster-in-Law” is vastly uneven, going from broad to smaller and more nuanced moments, and then back again to broader and crasser scenes. And Luketic stumbles with physical comedy, and the scene in which Viola and Charlie face and smack each other is heavyhanded.