For some reason, probably because I missed "Jersey Girl," "Gigli," "Maid in Manhattan," "The Cell," "Angel Eyes" and "Enough," all I could think about while watching Jennifer Lopez prance through "Monster-in-Law" was how cool and poised she was in "Out of Sight," wrapped in caramel leather and releasing more heat than a polar ice cap. But that was a long time ago. In "Monster-in-Law," directed by Robert Luketic ("Legally Blonde," "Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!"), she just gets tangled in her dog leashes and pretends to be Hilary Duff.
So it goes, I guess, with female stars in romantic comedy roles; it's tween's world, etc. But this particular role, as written by development executive turned screenwriter Anya Kochoff, is such a congealed pudding of studio cliches it borders on parody. An aspiring fashion designer, Charlotte "Charlie" Cantilini is a plucky orphan who apparently earns a great living walking dogs and temping. She lives in a bright airy apartment that comes equipped with a quippy gay best friend next door, and she generally dresses like a seventh-grader on her first day of school. She also favors a cutely androgynous nickname. "Charlie" may sound like a simple diminutive, but it's actually romantic comedy code -- like "Alex" or "Andy" -- for "deeply unthreatening woman-child who is almost like one of the guys, but hot."
It's no surprise, then, that Kevin (Michael Vartan), a surgeon in the shape of a Norse sex god, falls in love with Charlie almost instantly after jogging past her on the beach in slow motion. They run into each other again at a party in his honor, where Charlie is passing around appetizers for her friend, the sarcastic caterer. Kevin's evil ex-girlfriend, a slinky blond played by Monet Mazur, tries to throw a wrench in the romance by telling Charlie that Kevin is gay, but mostly the obstacles evaporate like morning mist.
Soon, it's time to take Charlie home to meet mother. Up to this point, Kevin has displayed as much personality and intelligence as a custard, so it's no real surprise that his timing is putrid. Mom happens to be Viola Fields, a famous broadcast journalist who was recently and unceremoniously dumped from her job in order to make way for an airhead decades her junior. Moments after getting fired, Viola lunges for the throat of a Britney Spears clone on the air and lands herself in the loony bin for an extended rest. She's in no mood to meet her son's new girlfriend, who she considers beneath him, and is appalled when he proposes right then and there at tea time.
In her comeback role after a 15-year absence from the movies, Jane Fonda digs into the part of the twinkie-threatened diva in decline with a zeal that suggests she knows the feeling. We're meant to loathe Viola for her snobbery, selfishness and careerism, but it's easier to share her frustration at the triumphant ascendancy of tarted-up mediocrity all around her. Hers is the only speck of emotional honesty in this otherwise insipid and casually insulting fantasy, and you get the feeling Viola would collapse in helpless exasperation before a movie like this one. After all, what is Charlie if not her third up close and personal encounter with the embodiment of everything Viola hates?
The set-up is all very "All About Eve," with Viola and her assistant, Ruby (Wanda Sykes) in the Bette Davis-Thelma Ritter roles and Charlie as the upstart who is trying to steal her life. In another era, Viola and Ruby would have been the stars of the movie, but this being a romantic comedy starring a bankable star, it was not to be. Viola sets out to drive Charlie away by driving her crazy, and when Kevin fails to notice that anything is up, Charlie begins her own campaign of retaliation.
Viola humiliates Charlie at her own engagement party? Charlie picks out a horrid peach gown for her to wear as her matron-of-honor. Viola tries to take over her wedding preparations, then fakes a nervous breakdown when Charlie puts her foot down? Charlie feeds her tripe. Viola keeps her up all night, affecting her pet care career? Charlie lets the dogs loose on her Gucci. And so forth. Things get so hot and heavy between them, that after a while you forget who they're fighting for.
If the vaporous Vartan seems slightly disoriented throughout the movie, he might just be wondering who did Charlie's makeup, and whether charges should be pressed. The one thing it's clear he's not wondering is what's going on between his beloved mother and the girl of his dreams. It would be something, these days, to see a comedy centered on a couple of worldly middle-aged broads having some fun at the expense of a pair of vapid saps. But "Monster-in-Law" is loyal to its lovers to the end. Viola may get a few slaps in (which Charlie gamely returns), but, in the end, she learns a valuable lesson. What do socio-economic differences, career discrepancies, basic incompatibilities and a teenage wardrobe on a thirtysomething matter when there are movie tickets to sell?
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sex references and language
Times guidelines: Some mildly saucy language and face-slapping, plus plenty of innuendo
A New Line Cinema release. Director Robert Luketic. Producer Paula Weinstein. Produced by Chris Bender, J.C. Spink. Screenplay by Anya Kochoff, Director of photography Russell Carpenter, A.S.C. Editor Scott Hill, Kevin Tent, A.C.E. Costume designer Kym Barrett. Music David Newman. Art director James F. Truesdale. Running time: 95 minutes. In wide release.