IF, a thousand years from now, archeologists unearth a print of "Monster-in-Law" from the rubble and the non-biodegradable diapers of our civilization, they'll have on their hands a near-perfect encapsulation of Hollywood's idea of a lovable, marriageable woman circa 2005. Charlie Cantilini (the scampering woman-child played by Jennifer Lopez) is not just the emblematic comedic female protagonist of our time. She's the King Tut's tomb of contemporary rom-com cliches.
How did she happen? What mysterious and fearsome forces created her?
I don't know the particular facts of the case, but I have a decent idea. Charlie feels like the very methodical, by-the-book creation of highly intelligent alien life forms who don't quite grasp how human life actually works. Which she is, sort of. Screenwriters may have internalized them, graduate schools may have assimilated them, but contemporary romantic comedy heroines are pure corporate product, a desperately pandering and clueless assemblage of received notions, sexual anxiety and recycled focus-group-think handed down over the years like Grandma's cheesecake recipe.
In case you missed her, or in case she washed over you gently like a wave of diazepam, here's a refresher on what Charlie is like: Quirky but impeccably soignee, Charlie (the boy's name implies you can trust her) works a series of sporadic, menial jobs but is not poor. In fact, she lives in a lovely apartment with a bottomless wardrobe and never complains about money. She has failed to enter her chosen profession (fashion design, presumably), but she's not bitter or anxious. She's orphaned, but not lost or needy. She's played by a pampered 35-year-old actress but tries to convey the untarnished hopefulness of a 22-year-old. She's also motionally mature enough for marriage but young, very young. She's insanely attractive, yet she's humble. And functionally celibate. Above all, she's nice. She's so nice that when her future mother-in-law launches a campaign of psychological torture against her, she reluctantly fights back, and eventually forgives her.
What kind of creature is she? Charlie is so unlike any human being on the planet that had she wriggled out of her skin at the end of the movie and swallowed a passing basset hound, it would have seemed the most natural thing in the world. She has a counterpart in the gorgeous-but-dour "strong female leads" that populate action movies and political thrillers, heroines whose lives resemble those of very violent monks. Contemporary romantic comedies allow their heroines to have personal and emotional lives, but only to a point. They take the realities of being young, female and single -- the low-paying jobs, the horrors of dating, the miasmas of anxiety and doubt (all sources of humor and empathy if they were portrayed in a fashion that was in any way honest or true) -- and turn them into accessories.
In "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," Kate Hudson plays a dating columnist who longs to be a "serious journalist" reporting on Balkan affairs. The dream is supposed to lend her gravitas without bogging her down with boring politics and bad shoes. None of these things are used as the source of comedy, just as a way to make the heroine more "likable," more "sympathetic," more "vulnerable," so that the hero may easily fall in love without having to deal with any prickly issues.
The main character in "Monster-in-Law," looked at from a social standpoint, would seem to have it pretty hard even without the evil mother-in-law. But the movie glides over her problems to give us a fantasy of contemporary young-womanhood. What would have happened if Charlie, with her low-paying jobs and sad career prospects, lived in a depressing studio with creepy neighbors? What if the incredibly attractive surgeon she fell in love with liked her but wasn't sure he wanted to commit because he didn't really understand her lack of ambition and direction? What if he was worried about taking her on as a potential life partner and winding up having to assume her student loans or credit card debt? (You never see Charlie purchase a single item, but judging from her wardrobe, she is clearly a shopaholic.) Would he worry about what his friends thought of her? Would he marry her just to get back at his controlling harpy of a mother?
All of this could have been explored without compromising a happy ending. If the movie didn't run from every complicated issue it brings up, then the happy ending might have felt earned, possibly even rousing. That's what the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s did, they flirted with all the terrifying possibilities and worst-possible outcomes and laughed at them. The code-baiting sex comedies of the '50s and the anxious, neurotic romantic comedies of the '70s, Woody Allen's specifically, didn't just touch on social issues regarding gender politics, they unpacked them with the glee of a 4-year-old at birthday time. Even in 1989, "When Harry Met Sally