In his review of Monster-in-Law (2005) for The AV Club, Nathan Rabin opined: “It’s not hard to imagine the militant Jane Fonda of 1972 angrily denouncing [this movie] as insulting Hollywood claptrap trafficking in regressive, reactionary, blatantly sexist gender codes.” And with all of the good work she was still doing out in the real world, God only knows what prompted a post-millennial Fonda to return to the silver screen after a fifteen year absence, simply to appear in such “claptrap”.
Fonda plays ‘Viola Fields’, a veteran newscaster and TV presenter, who’s informed that she’s about to be replaced by a younger, perkier model shortly before conducting a live interview with a bubble-headed Britney Spears-esque pop-singer. Enraged by the girl’s cheerful ignorance, Viola attacks her on air, and is promptly shipped off to a therapeutic retreat. Up until this point, the character actually seemed quite sympathetic, so I assumed that her meltdown was just be a temporary glitch, and that she would soon enjoy a speedy recovery, followed by a triumphant return to the spotlight… but I was an ass to make that assumption (or I’d underestimated what asses the writers were). Viola is a beautiful, sophisticated, intelligent, socially conscious and well-travelled woman, who has lived a fascinating and storied life… but instead of spending her (involuntarily) retirement writing a memoir or something constructive like that, she chooses to dedicate herself to driving her son’s perfectly pleasant new fiancé “mad”, in the hopes of splitting the pair apart… purely out of spite. Or maybe she’s racist? It’s hard to know, really. There are several jokes about the fact that she might be mentally ill, but all her so-called assistant ‘Ruby’ ever does to “help” is enable her angry alcoholism, and make sassy quips! Having one passive-aggressive sociopath on-screen is bad enough, but when the aspiring daughter-in-law, ‘Charlotte’, finally sees through Viola’s web of deceit and social sabotage, she doesn’t simply collect the proof in a calm and orderly way so that she can share it with her fiancé… no, she immediately decides to “fight fire with fire”, and set her own mean-spirited, poisonous little schemes in motion. This movie is insulting not only to womankind, but to humankind in general!
I only started watching this thing in the first place because of Jennifer Lopez… and she does put in a rather adorable performance here as the harried bride-to-be… but it still took me two days to finish, split over three separate viewing sessions. I just couldn’t stand seeing the two of them abusing each other like that… especially since the camera kept cutting to Ruby just so that she could make a quick quip about what she was watching, like a ringside commentator at a wrestling match. Heaven forbid she actually intervene and try to talk some sense into her old friend/employer! Seriously, one morning she finds Viola face down in a plate of food, having apparently spent the night slumped over the kitchen table (after Charlotte slipped her some extra-strong sedatives), and all Ruby does is admire the younger woman’s moxie! Oy! I should probably mention that Ruby is played by Wanda Sykes, of The New Adventures of Old Christine fame. Generally speaking, I think she’s a very funny comedian and actress… but the role she played here was so obnoxious, I ended up kinda hating her for it.
Other supporting players of note: Harriet Harris plays Viola’s supervising Therapist at the retreat. Annie Parisse and Adam Scott play Charlotte’s savvy and supportive best friends… both of whom mysteriously disappear during the middle section of the movie, presumably because the writers either forgot about them, or couldn’t figure out how to weave them into the idiotic plot. Elaine Stritch plays ‘Gertrude’, Viola’s own spiteful ex-mother-in-law, whose appearance in the third act prompts a schmaltzy, unearned epiphany. Ick. Tomiko Fraser makes a very brief appearance as an African-American ‘Coffee Shop Clerk’, who Charlotte calls “girl”, to show how hip she is (it isn’t quite as bad as the time Lopez used “the N-word” in a song, but it still made my buttocks clench a little). I thought Stephanie Turner was pretty spot-on as ‘Tanya Murphy’ (aka ‘The Pop Star’), and actually mistook her for the real Britney at first… but apparently she hasn’t had many major roles since, so… um… that’s all folks!
[Note: According to that Why Men Lie and Women Cry book I wrote about last year, there is some truth to the suggestion that a mother-in-law might become so jealous of her son’s relationship with a new woman, that she would actively seek to sabotage it… but that doesn’t mean you have to make an insultingly stupid slapstick comedy on the subject, does it?]