For her return to screen acting after an absence of 15 years, Jane Fonda has followed instincts analyzable only by Sigmund Freud and Gloria Steinem: To prove that she’s still got game, the best-selling autobiographer of My Life So Far has chosen to play a narcissistic bitch who wages war on a younger woman before undergoing tit-for-tat humiliation in a punitive comedy that tramples on decades of feminist progress with a blithering giggle. In Monster-in-Law, the erstwhile Barbarella, Hanoi Jane, political activist, fitness-tape mogul, and Oscar winner plays Viola Fields, a seasoned former TV journalist who, in one of the many skirmishes she engages in with Jennifer Lopez as her prospective daughter-in-law, passes out at the dinner table, facedown into a plate of tripe.
In doing so, Fonda joins a select sorority of mature, serious actresses made silly by the movies, including Candice Bergen (dropped by a right cross in Sweet Home Alabama), Isabelle Huppert (covered in mud in I Heart Huckabees), and Barbra Streisand (riding Robert De Niro in Meet the Fockers). Who’s come a long way, baby?
At first, Fonda’s Viola is one of those career-obsessed, ripe-for-chastisement media-biz news hens who have been around since His Girl Friday (and Network, and To Die For). A steely Barbara Walters type, she rules the TV roost until she’s axed to make way for a younger and more cleavage-based talent. Then the imperious broadcaster breaks down, takes a rest cure, and returns as a pampered, bitter, drink-prone neurasthenic, tended to by her wisecracking assistant (Wanda Sykes) and absorbed by a possessive (psychologists would diagnose the condition as ”icky”) fixation on her marriageable adult son, Kevin (Michael Vartan), for whom no girl is good enough. That Kevin, ostensibly an upstanding member of the medical profession, is oafishly unaware of his mother’s crazy-making manipulations and mischief is his own damn problem.
It’s Kevin’s reasonable announcement that he, apparently like millions, is in love with La Lopez (I mean, that he wants to marry Charlotte ”Charlie” Cantilini, a freelance dog walker and would-be fashion designer) that turns Viola into a grotesque she-devil. It’s an older woman’s acrid jealousy toward a younger one that threatens to sabotage a son’s happiness by torturing his girlfriend. And it’s Charlie’s plucky knack for self-defense (at one point she drugs Viola to outwit the old cow) that leads to the sight of the 67-year-old Fonda glopped with guts and gravy. With comedy like this, who needs Ann Coulter?
And if vapid characters like Charlie are on the ascent as models of girl power, what hope is there for the younger, female contingent in the audience? That Viola actually socializes with world leaders is presented as an act of pretentious intellectual snobbery. Charlie don’t know much about history, don’t know much geography (she’s also a yoga instructor and party waitress when not sketching designs for gowns influenced by Bob Mackie), but what matters is that she’s nice. She’s sweet. She’s got a gay best friend. She’s feisty and down-to-earth and unaffected and moderately talented, yet another variation on the dewy Jenny-from-the-block conceit on which the glossy entrepreneur has built her empire: Required to love the bride-to-be, everyone does — or else. (Sykes the resourceful comedian sprinkles what salt she can on the proceedings, but even she is defeated by the inevitable.)
The makers of Monster-in-Law — which was written, with little grace, by first-timer Anya Kochoff and directed by Robert Luketic with the same insistent zest for girl-on-girl warfare he brought to Legally Blonde — have their sights set on hitting the four-quadrant sweet spot, pulling in younger and older, male and female viewers. But in their eagerness to replicate the Meet the Parents formula for box office success (and in the summit-level negotiations required to accommodate the goals of both Fonda and Lopez), more harm is done than good. Looking marvelous as she does — hurt blue eyes even more luminous, figure trim, self-presentation royal — Fonda is readier than ever to acknowledge the striking, serious artist of Klute she still has it in her to be. She could play tough if she wanted to, or powerful, or dangerous, or sexual — easily imaginable as a politician, a lawyer, a businesswoman, a force who triumphs.
And if the movies don’t offer those roles to actresses over 50, well, then, screw the movies: Get thee to television drama, where seasoned actors of both sexes are the real stars. Law & Order, CSI, The Shield (viva Glenn Close!), and any drama on HBO would benefit, and benefit from Jane Fonda, untroubled by a face full of gravy. As for Monster-in-Law, it’s tripe on a plate.