Archive for Thursday, May 26, 2005

Fonda brings life to ‘Monster-in-Law’

May 26, 2005

A loudmouthed DJ warming up the crowd before an advance screening of "Monster-in-Law" in Kansas City broke the ice with a few questions.

"Who's here to see Jennifer Lopez?"

Dead silence.

"Okay. Who's here to see Jane Fonda?"

Thunderous applause.

Fonda may have been spit upon by a Vietnam War veteran at a recent Kansas City book signing, but apparently the general public still adores her.

That is not the response shared by her character's prospective daughter-in-law in "Monster-in-Law," Fonda's first movie after a 15-year hiatus. Co-star Lopez portrays Charlie, a hard-working but somewhat directionless woman who becomes smitten with Kevin (Michael Vartan), a handsome doctor. When the pair begins to get serious, Kevin introduces Charlie to his mother, Viola (Fonda), a revered talk show host who had an on-air breakdown after being replaced by someone who could "appeal to a younger demographic."

Viola takes an instant dislike to Charlie ("My son the brilliant surgeon is going to marry a temp"), and ultimately devises a scheme to separate the newly engaged couple. Things grow even uglier when Charlie figures out the plan and wages her own war.

Viola's wisecracking assistant (Wanda Sykes) predicts, "This will end badly."

Actually, this crowd-pleasing comedy gets better as it goes along. Despite wallowing in the dopey trappings of a paint-by-numbers genre - the rash of '60s pop songs, the gay male best friend (Adam Scott) - the picture generates momentum once the stars go head-to-head.

While few will compare Fonda's work here with her Oscar-meriting performances in "Klute" or "Coming Home," she gives the movie the kind of cinematic "oomph" only a surly veteran can muster. Her name-dropping, alcoholic, multiple-divorced character is enjoyable to watch even when her performance veers into overacting.

Credit the 67-year-old actress for not trying to disguise her age. There are no soft-focus tricks or lack of close-ups employed.

Although Fonda will be forever demonized as an anti-war wacko, she still comes across as the more likable figure than Lopez, whose film career has become a joke following the lethal cocktail of poor project choices and press overexposure.

The odd part is that audience members who buy a ticket to "Monster-in-Law" may find it easier to forgive Fonda for her disastrous 1972 trip to North Vietnam than Lopez for starring in "Gigli."

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