Monster-In-Law (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Monster-in-Law is appalling misfire of a comedy - a motion picture that takes a situation ripe for the blackest vein of satire and reduces it to a puerile and edgeless pile of goo. Forgive me for a moment if I bemoan the lost potential here. Give a project like this to Danny DeVito, whose War of the Roses existed in not dissimilar territory, and the possibilities are endless. But with Robert Luketic at the helm, the experience of viewing this movie represents a one-way ticket into tedium and a forced 90-minute imprisonment with Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda, both of whom give performances that can charitably be called cringe-inducing.

The story starts out stupid and gets worse from there. The first fifteen minutes are devoted to the development of an insipid romance between odd-jobswoman Charlie Cantilini (Lopez) and the perfect man, Kevin Fields (Michael Vartan). No chemistry is evident, but that doesn't matter, since this isn't a romantic comedy. Once the romance has gotten serious enough, Kevin decides to bring Charlie home to meet Mom, ex-TV talk show personality Viola Fields (Fonda). For reasons known only to the screenwriters, Viola takes an immediate and intense dislike to Charlie. (Supposedly, this has something to do with Viola's recent nervous breakdown coupled with her inherent belief that no woman is good enough for her son. In other words, it's a plot device that we're not supposed to question.) Charlie and Viola spend the rest of the movie doing nasty things to each other behind the back of an oblivious Kevin, who believes that his mother and bed-mate belong to a mutual admiration society.

Most of the give-and-take between Charlie and Viola is sophomoric - stuff like Viola keeping Charlie up all night or inviting Kevin's ex to a dinner party. Later in the film, things get more serious. Charlie drugs Viola with a super-strong sleeping draught and Viola spikes Charlie's gravy with crushed nuts (she is allergic to them). All this is a prelude to a sickening happy ending, which is so unlikely that it wouldn't make sense even in the sunniest fairy tale. Presumably, the thought of hard-edged ending never occurred to the producers. (Or, if it did, it was dismissed immediately.)

It's hard to say who is more galling to watch - the robotic and uncharismatic Lopez, who has long-since squandered the talent she showed in early-career films like Selena and Out of Sight - or Fonda, who veers between being stony and stilted and offering a harpy-like caricature. Michael Vartan is so inconsequential as to be virtually invisible. The only ones to inject a much-needed spark into this otherwise unbearable motion picture are the irreverent Wanda Sykes (as Viola's personal assistant) and Elaine Stritch (as Kevin's grandmother), who is only on-screen for about five minutes. Take these two away, and Monster-in-Law wouldn't have single bearable moment.

The film's director is Robert Luketic, whose previous projects include Legally Blonde and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! Compared to Monster-in-Law, those are examples of brilliantly nuanced comedy. This isn't the worst movie of the year, but it is one of the least entertaining. It's 95 minutes, but seems a lot longer. Although Sykes and Strich offer occasional breaks from the hum-drum monotony, Monster-in-Law offers a glimpse through the window of what happens when formulas usurp intelligence in a screenplay. Somewhere, buried beneath the dross, there's the kernel of a delicious black comedy. Unfortunately, in the hands of this filmmaking crew, it remains beyond reach. Avoid this Monster at all costs.

Monster-In-Law (United States, 2005)

Director: Robert Luketic
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Jane Fonda, Michael Vartan, Wanda Sykes, Adam Scott, Annie Parisse, Monet Mazur
Screenplay: Anya Kochoff
Cinematography: Russell Carpenter
Music: David Newman
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2005-05-13
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1