"Monster-In-Law" is not the train wreck I was expecting, but it could've been so much more.
Charlie (Jennifer Lopez) works a series of temp jobs and enjoys everything she does, making ends meet. It makes life interesting. One day, she meets Kevin (Michael Vartan), a doctor, and they quickly fall in love. Kevin's Mom is Viola Fields (Jane Fonda), a successful Barbara Walters-like network news anchor, with problems of her own. Kevin brings Charlie to his mother's estate to meet her. Kevin decides to propose, in front of his mother. Viola clearly disapproves and sets about breaking them up. As she and Ruby (Wanda Sykes), her assistant, set a series of events in motion, Charlie gradually begins to realize what she is working against and fights back.
"Monster-In-Law", directed by Robert Luketic ("Legally Blond", "Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!"), frequently veers into sitcom territory.
The acting is very broad and cartoonish. At one point, Charlie, having pulled one off on Viola, shakes her head and sniggers, much like a Hanna Barbera cartoon character. Lopez's character is all over the place. At one moment, she appears to be normal and caring and sympathetic, the other, she is acting like Peg Bundy from "Married with Children". Fonda, returning to feature films after 15 years, is clearly having fun chewing the scenery. And it is fun to watch her. But she is so over the top and Lopez is over the top only part of the time, that it seems like a bad sitcom. Wanda Sykes is very funny as Ruby. Her natural allegiance is with Viola, someone she has worked with for years, maybe decades, but she isn't beyond dressing down her boss, pointing out the problems with her theories. When she realizes that this isn't going to stop her boss, and Charlie is a stronger adversary, she begins to root a little for her. Michael Vartan (from TVs "Alias") is a very handsome guy, but he is virtually non-existent in this film. He is such a flat, boring character that he gets completely lost in the wake of Hurricane Fonda and Tropical Storm Lopez.
The film would've worked better if the two lead actresses were more complimentary. As Fonda chews the scenery, Lopez moves from trying to portray a real woman to matching the overblown antics of her co-star. It might have been more successful if one of the two were cartoonish while the other was more natural. Providing more balance to the proceedings. Or, if they were equally outlandish. As it is, the film seems unbalanced. Strange.
This sort of story naturally lends itself to a darker tone, but the filmmakers have steered clear of that. If the story moves slightly towards "dark territory", it quickly veers back into the safe and sunny territory everyone feels was necessary to earn the film mass acceptance. At one point, Viola is so fed up with Charlie that she is about to smash up some almonds and slip them into Charlie's food. Earlier, Charlie remarked that she was allergic to nuts. Ruby talks her out of it. Why does she have to talk Viola out of it? The story sets up that Viola is more than a little egomaniacal, more than a little crazy, more than a little excessive. It seems like her character would go through with something like this, no matter what. They pull Viola back because they want her to remain sympathetic, for the sappy, sweet ending.
I did laugh. More than I expected to. Much of this laughter was created by Wanda Sykes. Ruby is the type of all-knowing character every lead used to have. Think Thelma Ritter in the 50s. A couple of her one-liners made me laugh out loud.
Because the filmmakers pull the punches, they rob the film of any dark humor and relegate it to the annals of forgettable comedies on the shelf of every video store throughout the country.
From all of the horrible reviews I have read, I was expecting "Monster-In-Law" to be completely dreadful. I was surprised that I found myself laughing at the absurd situations. Certainly worth checking out on video, but a bargain matinee is pushing it.