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It would be one thing to dismiss this film as merely another notch in Jennifer Lopez’s schmaltzy romantic comedy laden belt. That would be all too easy. Sometimes it’s easier to discredit a film for its genre limitations than it is too look beyond the misfires and see wasted opportunity.

The true monstrosity here is not, in fact, any of the characters involved in this moderately amusing retread of the Meet the Parents formula, but instead the absence of any semblance of weight to back up Jane Fonda’s return to the silver screen after a fifteen year hiatus.

Early buzz suggested that Fonda had picked the perfect vehicle to announce her return to the silver screen. She had passed up a juicy role in Cameron Crowe’s upcoming Elizabethtown to star in…this? Nevermind that Jennifer Lopez was involved in the project, because she has proven both hot and cold at times. Of all the offers that must have been stacking up on Fonda’s agent’s desk over the course of the last fifteen years, she opts to sink her teeth into something like Monster-in-Law?

Wasn’t this to be Fonda’s Something’s Gotta Give?

Granted, the bauble does not merely begin with Fonda’s poor decision to sign onto the project, the mere premise of the film is troubled from the beginning. It’s not even to say that she has lost her command, Fonda delivers when necessary and when given something to work with, the problem is that these moments are few and far between the rest of the absurdity transpiring around her character Viola.

You know the drill. Beautiful Charlie (Lopez) is lovelorn and lost in a world of opportunity. Rather than following her dreams of becoming an artist (or was it working in fashion design?) she has consigned herself to various temp jobs ranging from dog walker, front desk worker, caterer, and a slew of other throw away odd jobs. She meets Dr. Kevin Fields (Michael Vartan) first on a beach, then in a coffee shop, and then finally at a party she is catering.

After a saccharine cute courting confusion, the good doctor and Charlie end up connecting, and anyone can tell where this is heading. Cue Fonda’s Viola, a dedicated talk show host superstar who is anticipating a promotion when network executives arrive at her dressing room prior to the taping of her show. Instead she is handed a pink slip, told that she is being replaced by a buxom young counterpart, and manages to tarnish her sterling reputation by strangling a Britney Spears-like pop star on her live television show.

Here is where the trouble really begins rearing its ugly head. Cuts happen so quickly that when post-strangling Viola meets with a shrink, we are shocked to find out that this meeting is actually the last of her three month recovery in a mental health facility. Her breakdown supposedly overcome, Viola returns home eagerly wishing to re-establish her relationship with her son, you guessed it, Kevin. Instead of being allowed to remain the one and only woman in her dear son’s life, Viola must now contend with a young counterpart reminiscent of her talk-show replacement.

Potential, no? Just wait.

Charlie’s scattered nature stems from a severed relationship with family, cut short by death. Despite her loss, Charlie remains hopelessly optimistic and dreadfully “cute” while she hops from one job to another. Despite her lack of commitment, she somehow manages to afford a beautiful beachfront apartment, but never mind that. The theme of family is set up in such a way that viewers accustomed to the “formula” in films such as this will recognize it immediately, and then question its absence until conveniently re-emerging in the third act to save the day. Convenience? Meet contrived.

A well developed screenplay could have played with Charlie’s lack of commitment and found resonance in contrast to Viola’s (Fonda) dedication to her career and her resulting mental breakdown when said career is stripped out from underneath her. All the potential in the setup is completely lost once the “battle” begins. A well developed screenplay, this is not.

Yes, Monster-in-Law has the prerequisite pieces to make an interesting film. Unfortunately these facets are trampled beneath the need to shuck and jive audiences with safe familiarity.

The only character to come close the sort of grounded edginess required to pull us further into the film is Viola’s assistant Ruby, played by Wanda Sykes. Sykes is the sort of comedian that could keep me entertained merely walking the streets with a camera and riffing on whatever might come her way. She is subdued here, but one can’t help but wish that Viola and Charlie had somehow found a way to live in Ruby’s world instead of the forced miasma that they seem so content inhabiting.

Does Charlie ever find the confidence to pursue her artistic dreams? Does her love interest, Dr. Kevin Fields (Michael Vartan) ever contribute anything other than his presence to the conflict at hand? Is Viola actually mentally unstable or is she merely playing it up? These questions, as clichéd as their resolutions may have been if played out, are pre-requisite for films such as these. Without them, it feels hollow.

And yet the film is undeniably “Ok.” Sure, you wish it had done certain things differently here and there, but then ultimately end up asking, “Why do I even care?” Monster-in-Law fails to connect on the necessary level to establish audience investment with any of its characters that by the end of the film you don’t feel robbed so much because it did, after all, have some laughs. Yet it can’t be denied that something was missing in the puzzle, somewhere.

My wife, whom is usually far more forgiving of films of this ilk, had this to say, “It didn’t make me cry, so it must not have been that great.”



Mario Anima

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