Jennifer Lopez as Charlotte “Charlie” Cantilini
Jane Fonda as Viola Fields
Michael Vartan as Kevin Fields
Wanda Sykes as Ruby
Adam Scott as Remy
Annie Parisse as Morgan
Monet Mazur as Fiona
Will Arnett as Kit
Charlie Cantilini (Jennifer Lopez) bounces through life in L.A., to settle down or limit her options until she meets Kevin (Michael Vartan), the man of her dreams, and he proposes. Everything is fine until she meets Kevin’s mother Viola (Jane Fonda), a Jane Paulie-esque television journalist who has lost her long time job and is determined not to lose anything else, especially her only son.
Monster-in-Law is a slightly charming film that tries, but never manages, to be more than that. It lives under the curse of missed opportunities and blown set ups. Viola moves in with Charlie and does her best to drive Charlie crazy. Charlie finds out Viola’s been lying about her illness and retaliates. Viola spikes Charlie’s food with walnuts, which she is deathly allergic to, culminating in a fistfight between bride- and mother-in-law-to-be during the wedding. It all sounds much funnier than it actually is.
And that’s the big problem. Monster-in-Law has no backbone. It consistently builds to a potentially very funny moment, then backs down and quickly moves on to the next scene. Set ups are never taken all the way to their ultimate conclusion because that would make the film too vicious. Fonda and director Robert Luketic work hard to keep Viola likable and relatable even as she does mean things, but the result just waters her and the rest of the film down. They were aiming for black comedy, but added cream and sugar anyway to make it more palatable to everyone.
Fonda is terrific playing the mess that is Viola – a woman who plays at having everything together, but is coming apart at the seams on the inside. She is alternately rude, crazy, pathetic, mean, and likeable. Her introduction tells you everything you need to know about her when, just after learning she has been fired, she attacks a vacuous Britney Spears clone on air. The film never quite reaches that level of mean-spirited fun again.
Fonda carries most of the movie on her shoulders; no one else has much to do. Jennifer Lopez plays Charlie with a very sweet sort of loneliness that’s a hallmark of most of the female heroes of romantic comedies, but it doesn’t help the film at all. She’s too nice for the films own good. At one point it seems as if she is going to sink to Viola’s level and the two are going to go at it hammer and tongs to decide who will be the number one woman in Kevin’s life – it feels like that is what the whole film has been building to – but it never actually happens. As quickly as Charlie gets mean, she gets nice again.
It doesn’t help that it’s hard to care who their fighting over, either. Michael Vartan does solid work as Kevin, he’s funny and charming in just the right amounts for a romantic comedy, but he essentially disappears after the proposal. His only real importance to the story is that he is Viola’s son – once she appears, the story becomes entirely about her and Charlie, and Kevin and the various useless, acerbic best friends (Adam Scott, Annie Parisse, Will Arnett) vanish.
The only other person worth watching is Ruby (Wanda Sykes), Viola’s sarcastic assistant-cum-confidant who follows her and helps her with her schemes, even though she knows they’re bad ideas. Sykes’ dry, under-the-top performance deliver up the best lines in the film, and she and Fonda have excellent chemistry together, far better than Fonda and Lopez manage. It’s hard not to feel that a film and Viola and Ruby’s adventures would have been far funnier than what we actually got.
Monster-in-Law isn’t bad, and it’s even occasionally funny, but there are so many missed opportunities for real humor that the end result can’t help but feel unsatisfying.
Monster-in-Law is rated PG-13 for sex references and language.