Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Age Wars: Revenge of the Boomer in Monster-in-Law



With the aging of that most powerful demographic, the baby boomers, we get some interesting twists on their entertainment icons’ former glory. Paul McCartney plays for the Super Bowl. The venerable Barbara Streisand resurfaces in, uh, Meet the Fockers, and now Jane Fonda comes out of retirement to star in Monster-in-Law as a vengeful 60ish mom. Was this a good career move or should she remarry Ted Turner and continue to do the tomahawk chop while watching the Atlanta Braves?

Given the film’s generic romantic comedy opening premise in which a dog-walking Jennifer Lopez stumbles across Doctor Hunk Kevin (Michael Vartan) out on the beach, and then bumps into him again in a coffee shop, and then once again when she’s catering a party, a wicked Jane is exactly what the film needs. J-Lo stunned me a long time ago as a US Marshal in Out of Sight, but that was the last time I saw her relax on camera. When she does comedy such as in The Wedding Planner, her acting seems forced, her comic timing erratic. She tries too hard, and her whimsical role here as working class heroine Charlie Cantilini is at first just dull. She’s about as erotic as a shampoo commercial. Her Doctor boyfriend looks like a rebooted young Clint Eastwood only without the intelligence or the menace. He compliments her eyes! They fall in love! And I agreed with my friend Andy Kunka, who noted that the first half hour of the film could easily have been cut.

But then, Jane Fonda shows up as Viola Fields, Kevin’s mother, a Barbara Walters-esque but otherwise rail-thin television hostess with a wise-cracking sidekick, Ruby (Wanda Sykes). Jane Fonda has her legendary former career to trash or not, and for awhile she’s great fun when her character finds out that the studio heads are replacing her with some youngster. Thunderstruck Viola finds herself interviewing a blank Britney Spears-type singer on her TV show. As jealousy overwhelms her, Viola asked her what she thinks of Roe vs. Wade, and when the singer replies that she does not keep track of boxing matches, Viola leaps on the girl and attempts to strangle her. She immediately gets committed to an insane asylum. On the day she gets out and returns to her palatial estate, her doctor son comes calling in his Range Rover with J-Lo and after a brief tea, proposes to his new girlfriend in front of his mother. Jane Fonda grimaces, imagines bashing Charlie’s head into the tea set, and then instantly starts plotting to separate the two.

In the sixties, Fonda played the sex kitten in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella who begins the film with a strip tease where she gradually takes off her space suit in zero gravity. Now she plays the woman irrationally hating younger women, and once J-Lo’s character catches on to her game, the film has a nice cat-fighting air to it. They take turns spying on each other, fixing disgusting meals for each other, and crying loudly in restaurants. Amidst the various battles, Wanda Sykes has all of the good one-liners. When Viola beats on the sofa in her rage, Wanda looks at a champagne bottle and deadpans “We are going to need something stronger than this.” When Viola says that they will be alone together from now on, Wanda asks “Who did I kill in my former life?” Her expert comic timing beats out everyone else in the movie.

Basically Monster-in-Law is diverting fluff, but Jane Fonda has entered into her King Lear phase. One can consider her willingness to embarrass herself sad, but I liked watching her rage.

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