After 15 years away from films, Jane Fonda (Agnes of God, Nine to Five) re-emerges with a vengeance in Monster-in-Law, and while the material never rises above typical romantic comedy fare to become a truly good movie, the lion’s share of the credit as to why it does work comes from Fonda’s energetic, tongue-in-cheek performance. She isn’t alone, as the rest of the cast chip in where they can, with Wanda Sykes stealing the best laughs as the sassy assistant, and even Jennifer Lopez (Gigli, Maid in Manhattan) offers one of her more likeable performances in years.
J.Lo plays Charlie Cantilini, a spiritual So Cal girl who spends her days doing a variety of odd jobs, such as dog walker to name just one. A believer in fate, she feels a certain connection to one particular stranger after seeing him several times in the same day. Perhaps it is fate after all, as her next odd job sees her playing waitress at a party that the same man, a hunky surgeon named Kevin Fields (Michael Vartan, One Hour Photo), is in attendance. It’s a bit awkward at first, but soon the two hit it off, and the relationship is so splendid, Kevin takes Charlie to meet dear old mom right away. Mom isn’t like any mom though; she is Viola Fields, one of the most respected journalists (a la Barbara Walters) in the nation, although her age now puts her on the verge of losing her job to someone younger and prettier. As if this situation weren’t stressful enough, Kevin decides to drop the bomb during the visit when he asks Charlie to marry him. Viola is all smiles on the outside, but inside she is seething that Kevin would marry beneath his station, and ties to persuade Charlie not to rush into things. When that fails, the claws are out, as Viola will stop at almost nothing to make sure her son doesn’t make the mistake of marrying this classless temp, and her strategy is to scare Charlie away from her son by threatening to make her life hell.
Director Robert Luketic (Win a Date with Tad Hamilton, Legally Blonde) does the best he can with the sitcom-minded screenplay from first-time screenwriter, Anya Kochoff, but the contrived situations and many jokes that end up fizzling keep this at a level of occasionally entertaining at best. There are a few in-jokes sprinkled throughout that are funny, but unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough to make this any different than many similar vehicles about disapproving parents we’ve seen countless times in movies and on television. All too often, the script aims very low in humor to get cheap laughs, such as when the waiter playing Viola’s doctor shows up for the family dinner and for some reason thinks he can’t stop playing waiter despite knowing full well he isn’t there for that.
The only thing worth recommending here are the performances of the stars, with an especially good comeback for Fonda, while Jennifer Lopez shows that we shouldn’t quite write her off yet as a romantic comedy talent. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, the male lead gets lost, as does farcical nature of the contest between the two female leads, which seems more driven by personal vendetta than out of love for their guy, and that makes both of them look less than sympathetic in the end. Monster-in-Law has a few funny moments, but with such a weak script, it quickly snaps back to mediocrity whenever it looks like it might get into a groove.