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Review: Fonda up, J.Lo down in 'Monster'

Without Fonda and Sykes, film is flat

By Paul Clinton

Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez face off in "Monster-in-Law."
Jane Fonda
Jennifer Lopez

(CNN) -- Jennifer Lopez is a multi-talented, beautiful woman. When she picks the right material -- such as "Selena" or "Out of Sight" -- she also shows she's a very capable actress.

But like a hound dog with a bad head cold, her instincts are often off the mark. Her latest effort, "Monster-in-Law," is only saved -- by the skin of its teeth -- by her co-stars, Jane Fonda and Wanda Sykes.

After a 15-year self-imposed exile from Hollywood, Fonda, the 67-year-old multiple Academy Award winner, is back -- and she lets it rip in "Monster-in-Law."

It's her first comedy since "Nine to Five" in 1980 and she takes what has become a standard, rather trite, paint-by-numbers Lopez vehicle (think "The Wedding Planner" and "Maid in Manhattan") and elevates it to a whole new level. I wouldn't go as far as to say she single-handedly makes lemonade out of lemons, but she adds some much-needed sweetener. She also adds a cross-generational appeal that can only help at the box office.

Fonda is supported by standup comic-turned-actress Sykes, who delivers a wonderfully deadpan performance. Whenever the two appear in a scene together the screen lights up and the comedy kicks into high gear.

However, they don't enter the story until about 15 minutes into the film. Making it through those minutes is like wading through mud.

Mixing it up

Lopez plays Charlotte "Charlie" Cantilini, a no-nonsense, independent young woman holding down a number of jobs -- including dog walker. It's while walking those dogs that she runs into Mr. Right in the form of Dr. Kevin Fields -- a rather bland dreamboat with perfect teeth -- played by Michael Vartan.

They exchange a brief "I want to jump your bones" look, but she keeps seeing him time after time over the next few days. In Hollywood terms that's called "meeting cute." Cuteness wears real thin real quickly.

Before you can say "haven't I seen this film before on the Lifetime channel?" they've fallen in love and moved in together. At this belated point -- actually it's just in time in terms of saving the film -- Kevin decides it's time for Charlie to meet his dear ol' mom.

Bad move. Viola (Fonda) has just been fired from her job as a high-powered Barbara Walters-type interviewer. After suffering a meltdown on national television -- when she tries to strangle a Britney Spears clone -- she's committed to a posh mental hospital.

Wanda Sykes, who plays the Fonda character's assistant, is one of the movie's bright spots.

Her career in shambles, she retreats to her huge mansion to continue her recovery with Sykes, as her loyal assistant Ruby, in tow. At this point, Junior appears with his dog- walking girlfriend, and during tea proposes marriage to Charlie right in front of his decidedly unstable mother.

Viola puts on a paper-thin brave front, but secretly begins plans -- with Ruby's help -- to break up the engagement by becoming the mother-in-law from hell. At first Charlie tries to appease Viola, but that proves to be impossible.

Soon she begins to fight fire with fire and the two women find themselves in a pitched battle over Kevin's future. Kevin, of course, is completely clueless throughout all this obvious turmoil right up until the predictable ending of the film.

Flawed date movie

"Monster-in-Law" is the screenwriting debut for Anya Kochoff. She's created great roles for Fonda and Sykes, who both milk them for all their worth. She's also written a character for Lopez which unfortunately keeps her firmly in her romantic comedy comfort zone -- a zone which has become a rut.

Elaine Stritch also makes an appearance as Viola's mother-in-law, one that is (almost) worth the price of admission.

Vartan, however, is mainly reduced to eye candy. To be fair, though, this is a film written by a woman for women; how many thousands of other films can you name where the women are merely props for the men who take center stage?

Director Robert Luketic ("Legally Blonde," "Win a Date with Tad Hamilton") clearly has a gift for comedic timing and guides his actors with a light and loving touch.

Even with its many flaws, "Monster-in-Law" has some hilarious moments and will surely please its target audience. It's a fairly good date movie, and with June just around the corner -- the year's favorite month for weddings -- it might also be a great night out for soon-to-be brides and their future mothers-in-law. Moreover, it's nice to have Fonda back.

But J.Lo, you may want to find a new agent.

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