Cutting a dutiful swath through the chat shows to promote her new tell-almost-all memoir, Jane Fonda looked as though she could use some comic relief. The set of that precisely defined jaw, inherited with a ton of other baggage from her famous father, grew tighter by the hour as this survivor of serial male domination slogged grimly through the account of why she'd succumbed with so little fight to her irascible dad and the philanderers she subsequently hitched herself to. Over and over she told interviewers that she felt she deserved no better, and I'm sure that's true. Life with Henry (their relationship was painfully etched into the barely fictional On Golden Pond) and a suicidal mother was probably enough to make any woman feel that she deserved no better than the husbands she got. Still, watching Fonda pare herself down to a single, therapeutically fortified narrative in which she "takes responsibility" for her wretched choice of partners was scary and dispiriting. By any measure, the actress and activist has led a colorful life, and she's done good works by the score, most of which are listed, in lieu of her many film roles, in the production notes for her new movie. I'm happy for her and the millions of women who look up to her that she ditched the breast implants and got herself otherwise empowered. But one looks, in a very rich woman of 67, for a little less steely self-absorption and a touch more humor about the common and uncommon mistakes she's made. If nothing else, her new movie, Monster-in-Law, gives Fonda the opportunity to lighten up and show off the virago within. God knows, the movie has precious little else to offer, even with the reliably radiant Jennifer Lopez onboard to play the unsuspecting competition for mommie dearest's precious son. A protracted monster-mom joke of the most predictable kind, Monster-in-Lawwas written by Anya Kochoff, who is good for the occasional gag line but not to be depended upon for dialogue that anybody might actually say, and directed by Robert Luketic with considerably less verve than he brought to that amusing trifle Legally Blonde. Kochoff calls Monster-in-Lawa "bride-as-underdog" story, and it will do, barely, as a cautionary date movie for the young and marriage-minded. But if the screening I attended is anything to go by, this is a gay men's movie whose primary function is to doll Fonda up like a drag queen and let her rip.
But not before a leisurely introduction to her prey, Charlie (Lopez), a lowly temp who, it goes without saying, is a gifted painter when off duty. So sweet is Charlie that she kisses a photo of her dead parents before leaving for work each day and is endlessly forbearing with her endlessly kooky Melrose Place pals (Adam Scott and Annie Parisse). She falls for Kevin (Michael Vartan), a young physician with excellent teeth who will have little to do for the duration but wring his hands while the cats fight. Before you can say, cut-scene-two, Charlie and Kevin are shacked up and planning a becomingly modest little wedding. Enter Mom, a.k.a. Viola, a recently fired talk-show host of the Murphy Brown variety with other ideas about everything from the color of the bridesmaids' dresses to the suitability of this fortune-hunting hussy, or any other, for her beloved offspring. She moves in, throws dishes and hissy fits, changes outfits like a runway pro, and manipulates the hell out of the good-natured bride-to-be. Lopez, who is not built for demure, only comes into her own when she begins to respond in kind, and from then on you can set your alarm for the bitch-slapping sequence, followed by home truths, reconciliation and joyful nuptials.
Hysteria doesn't come naturally to the reserved Fonda, but she throws herself into this melee like a trooper, and really, she's awfully sweet with her hair all mussed, or pitched face-forward into a plate of horrible food, or as a wrathful vision in peach frills. Too bad that she's both upstaged and outflanked, first by comedian Wanda Sykes, who gets all the best lines as Viola's less than long-suffering assistant, Ruby, and then by the ineffable Elaine Stritch, who shows up for a showstopping cameo as Viola's own implacable mother-in-law. If Luketic can field this lot, there's no telling what he'll do with the monster moms in his next project, a feature adaptation of the prime-time soap Dallas.
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Monster-in-Law may be warmed-over camp, but, just in time for Mother's Day, it does have one thing going for it. Though hardly flattering, it's the most affectionate and forgiving celluloid portrait of a mom I've seen since Albert Brooks' far superior Mother. Even a cursory rummage through recent American cinema feels like a ride through a maternal hell peopled with timid, neurotic, controlling or critically absent mother figures. Consider the smiling ballbusters played by Ellen Barkin and Debra Monk in Todd Solondz's Palindromes, or Ta Leoni's weak, possessive widow in David Duchovny's House of D, or Emily Mortimer's overprotective single mom in Dear Frankie. Howard Hughes' mother appears as a 60-second bookend at either end of The Aviator, just long enough to set her up as the cause of all his troubles. Meryl Streep gives the delicious performance of her career as the conniving bitch ruining Liev Schreiber's life in The Manchurian Candidate. As a vagina with teeth, she is outshone only by that nice Mrs. Goebbels in Downfall, calmly popping cyanide pills into her sleeping children's mouths so that they can follow the beloved Fhrer into eternity. Bridget Jones' mum is flighty and narcissistic. Mean Girlshas one of those cringe-making mothers who want to dress like their daughters and be their girlfriends. In Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette's childlike, manic-depressive mom is at once the love and the scourge of his life. And my 7-year-old recently asked me why all the children's movies we see—Lemony Snicket, Finding Nemo, Fly Away Home, to name but a few—begin with dead or fled mothers. Not to mention the wicked stepmothers, or godmothers, like the scheming, blue-rinsed fairy in Shrek 2.
There's nothing especially new about all this foaming ambivalence, which reaches way back before NowVoyagerand the psychoanalytically inspired maternal dramas of the '30s and '40s to the Brothers Grimm, back through Lady Macbeth, to the wrathful goddesses and black widows of ancient Greece. In children's tales, mothers are sent packing in part for plot purposes, to open a path to trouble and adventure for their unprotected offspring. But you don't have to be Freud to understand the churning love and murderous rage aroused in all of us, and particularly in the men who mostly remain in charge of our storytelling, by the one woman who from our babyhood has exercised absolute control over our helplessness. No wonder pop history is littered with maternal putdowns.
What is striking about the depiction of mothers in current cinema is its schizoid compartmentalization into gorgons and saints. Given the choice, I'll take a well-rounded Medusa over a paragon any day. I'm partial to the desperate housewives, and I can get behind any movie virago if she has a bit of pep to her. The movie maters you have to watch out for are worthies like the truly scary Vera Drake, a trembly, whispering, asexual blob of unmitigated self-sacrifice whose monolithic nobility I didn't believe in for a nanosecond. Fonda is loads more fun and persuasive losing it in Monster-in-Lawthan she is as a put-upon daughter, or a mother paying perfunctory lip service to her children in interviews. Viola, at least, is not all mom—she's a woman too, and how rare is that at the movies these days? For my money, the movie Mother of the Year is The Incredibles' Elastigirl, a brave and versatile chick who discovers that she can serve her family just as well as a long-armed savior of the world as by hanging up her hat in a suburban tract house.
MONSTER-IN-LAW WAS DIRECTED BY ROBERT LUKETIC; WRITTEN BY ANYA KOCHOFF; PROUCED BY PAULA WEINSTEIN. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.