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Monster-in-law

Director: Robert Luketic
Cast: Jane Fonda, Jennifer Lopez, Michael Vartan, Wanda Sykes

(New Line Cinema; US theatrical: 13 May 2005; 2005)

All Business

Love me, love me, say that you love me,
Fool me, fool me, go on and fool me,
Love me, love me, pretend that you love me,
Lead me, lead me, just say that you need me.
—The Cardigans, “Lovefool”


Jane Fonda’s been extra busy the past month. The promotional campaign for her new book, My Life So Far, has made the 68-year-old icon visible in brand new ways. Her precisely articulated self-understanding, broadly resonant memories, and polarizing political status have provided all kinds of grist for talk-show regaling (her interviews with Letterman and Charlie Rose were especially entertaining). That’s not to say that what she’s representing is wholly news: depending on who you are, she remains her father’s daughter, Barbarella, an Oscar winner, Hanoi Jane, the workout tape queen, or Mrs. Ted Turner, no matter what new life material she offers up for public consumption.


The book tour is so grand and galvanizing in fact, that you kind of wish she hadn’t also dipped into the whole big screen comeback business. Monster-in-Law is the sort of dull and exasperating affair that you wish didn’t get made. Fonda plays Viola Fields, a powerhouse celebrity interviewer, all bustling and big-eyed and self-adoring. Having survived a series of husbands and a brutally globe-trotting career, she has arrived at the top of her heap, only to learn, at film’s start, that she’s fired, so the network can hire a younger, blonder, airier version of herself. Viola’s devastation—so personal and so acute—leads directly to a public meltdown, when she assaults, on her talk show set, a Britney-Spearsish, bare-midriffed performer with no notion of what the words “Roe v. Wade” mean.


Shipped off to a clinic to recuperate, Viola can’t even imagine what difficulty is headed her way, namely, J-Lo.


Okay, not exactly the much-married pop star J-Lo. She’s more like the nicest possible version of Jennifer Lopez, the one who wants everyone to like her and appreciate her talents as an actor-singer-designer-wife. Here she’s playing the latest best version of herself: the sensible, ever-cupie-doll-voiced, proud-of-her-booty Charlie, currently an aspiring fashion designer with two best friends (the dark-haired girl cynic, Morgan [Annie Parisse], and the preciously gay Remy [Adam Scott]), as well as numerous jobs (temping, dog-walking, Little League coaching, yoga instructing, catering). As tends to happen in robustly formulaic romantic comedies, Charlie is in love with Viola’s doctor son Kevin (Michael Vartan, whose own press for this film has consisted primarily of suffering comparisons to Ben Affleck, as both have bedded Jens Lopez and Garner). And so Charlie and Viola are on a collision course. Can you even imagine the fun and fireworks when they clash?


Actually, you can, as the film’s promotional campaign has already showed off the more elaborate head-ons, both fantastic (Viola smashing Charlie’s face into a cake) and “real” (slapping one another silly). As Kevin stands by (or runs off, for doctorly business) in dubious ignorance, the women go at it. Initially awed by Viola’s impressive rep and her crying jags, sweet Charlie tries hard to accommodate her utterly whipped fiancé‘s wishes, agreeing to cater to his recently traumatized mom and accommodate his belief that her booze-fueled emotional roller-coastering is phase.


Charlie and you know better, of course, that Viola’s abusiveness is long-established and well-honed. And now, directed at Charlie, the un-diva J-Lo. She doesn’t fight back until it’s absolutely plain Viola’s been deceiving everyone in order to Get Her Way. At this point, PG-13 heck breaks loose. This partly encouraged by Viola’s long-suffering assistant Ruby (Wanda Sykes). She gives it back as well as she gets it, occasionally offering tempering advice but mostly enabling all manner of fierce histrionics while commenting from the sidelines (by Sykes’ signature broad expressions and slashy commentary). Sykes is easily the liveliest element in the film, playing audience stand-in and resident smart-ass. The fact that she’s black surrounded, particularly at Viola’s mansion, by literal and metaphorical whiteness, only underlines her welcome distinctiveness and her caricature-ish wisdom.


The problem here is not that the women—including the arch and abiding Elaine Stritch, who makes a late appearance as Viola’s own vicious mother-in-law—are mean or selfish or ghoulishly broad. This is the given within the genre. What is galling, though, is that this is (mostly) what’s left for women of a certain age or public temperament, to make fun of the awfulness for which they have been known and heckled throughout their careers, whether lengthy or, in the case of Lopez, relatively brief.


While it’s arguable that Fonda’s manipulations by media take a particularly political shape (this having as much to do with her “era” as her actions) and that Lopez can’t even imagine the sort of respect once and even still occasionally afforded Fonda, together they form a continuum of ambition, success, and widely broadcast implosions and meltdowns. Reviled or chastised for selling themselves, for being ballsy or wielding power in public forums (from movies to workout tapes to cd sales and fragrances), Fonda, Lopez, and to an extent, Sykes have turned their seeming threats into commodities.


And so they sell themselves some more. Though the pathologies they embody—greed, drive, egotism, insecurity—tend to be framed as individual, they are symptomatic and well rewarded. While it might be good to see them get paid, that is, get something out of this terrible bargain, Fonda and Lopez the products (not so unlike Spears the product; her version of this movie is only a few years away) are equally redundant and repetitive, ground out by ancient machinery. Arriving and resisting, bailing out and coming back—they’re all only more of the same.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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