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Mommie dearest

Fonda sparkles, but Monster-in-Law betrays real women

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With the Meet the Parents franchise, Americans recognized the potential humor of class embarrassment in a supposedly classless society. Meet the Parents milked hilarity from the culture clash of Jewish male nurse Ben Stiller shrinking in fear from his haughty, WASPy in-laws.

Monster-in-Law's thin sliver of comedy hinges on a similar tale. Directionless-but-hot Charlotte (Jennifer Lopez) faces off against her control-freak mother-in-law, Viola (Jane Fonda).

An ingénue beyond the traditional age, Charlotte is a free spirit in the Goldie Hawn tradition. Like some "Melrose Place" Barbie, Charlotte comes accessorized with a shabby-chic dream apartment. Plus, she's got the requisite "catty" gay best friend to persuade us that Monster-in-Law is down with that whole urban Cosmo vibe, throwing out terms like "gaydar" and "mani-and-a-pedi."

Charlotte makes her living with an absurd hodgepodge of jobs. She's a temp, a waitress and a dog walker on the beach (during which she wonders when her prince will come).

In Hollywood, you just wish it, and it will be so. As Charlotte gazes wistfully at the surf, a mega-cutie jogs by in slo-mo to ensnare her fragile, lovelorn heart.

The girl's got good eyes: Kevin (Michael Vartan) is not only a hunk, he's a big-time surgeon whose credentials are heralded at a cocktail party meant to inform slower viewers of what it is, exactly, that surgeons do. A helpful friend talks of Kevin's brilliance in the surgical theater. He saves a patient's life ... by operating on him.

Monster-in-Law feels like it was either written for or by teens. It's full of teenage-esque romantic angst, as when fretful Kevin cold-calls Charlotte and must be coached like a giddy schoolgirl on what to say by his surgeon friend.

The unlikely duo of doctor and dog walker eventually becomes an item, leading to Monster-in-Law's celebrity grudge match between Kevin's mean mother Viola and his slacker bride-to-be.

Viola is a high-powered career gal, sniffing her nose at the prospect of her expensively educated, brilliant child sealing his fate to a directionless gold digger.

The femme-angst setup is that Oprah-esque TV journalist Viola has been replaced by a younger, blonder model. But quickly, any suggestion of genuine Nine to Five workplace anxiety is replaced with a prolonged catfight in which Viola and Charlotte take turns torturing each other for laughs.

The film underscores two regressive ideas: First, that modern career women are neurotic, unhappy, competitive, underfed bitches. Second, that aspiring trophy wives like Charlotte are the more content, well-adjusted ones. Who needs a career? Charlotte just wants to cuddle.

Hollywood's sexual politics have gone backward instead of forward. Screenwriter Anya Kochoff tends to hack off Fonda's chutzpah at the knees, turning her feminist chops into something more menacing: a nasty haughtiness many viewers undoubtedly will want to see brought down a notch or two.

In another day, with a more skilled director, Viola's rage might have been given its due. A director like Douglas Sirk or George Cukor could have given Viola's legitimate fear of growing older and being forgotten some respect. But Monster-in-Law director Robert Luketic just fumbles and chokes.

Viola's justifiable fear of sexual obsolescence plays second fiddle to the heeeelarity of some physical comedy.

In one genuinely funny scene, we are meant to root for poor Charlotte as the monster-in-law tries to drive her away from her boy by introducing Charlotte to dignitaries gathered at a fancy reception as a "temp." In the story's ungainly turnaround, Charlotte finally gets the chance to exact a violent revenge on Viola, mugging like a kid in a John Hughes film who finally puts the fascist school principal in her place.

The irony of Monster-in-Law is how it negates an older woman's fear of being replaced by a younger model by making vapid Charlotte look like the preferable icon next to the hysterical, unhinged Viola.

But Fonda, who rages and rails with a campy, Auntie Mame glory, provides the only joy in the film. Next to a force of nature like Fonda, Lopez has all the charisma of something pulled off the dryer lint trap.

While bimbettes may cheer on Lopez, gay men and women of a certain age will find joy at the ribald sight of Fonda guzzling martinis, looking fierce in her retro-chic suits, and queening through the whole mess with more wit and energy than the film deserves.

FELICIA.FEASTER@CREATIVELOAFING.COM

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