On its surface, Monster-in-Law is a fairly standard farce of parental disapproval, a gender-switch on the father/fiancé antagonism of the sub-genre that brought us Father of the Bride, Meet the Parents/Fockers, and Guess Who. As such, it’s reasonably successful; there are at least as many jokes that work as fall flat, and it doesn’t sink to cheap scatological humor or repetitive, masochistic humiliation scenarios. What makes Monster-in-Law more interesting — and funnier — than most of its ilk is the subtle, subversive way in which it injects a gay “camp” sensibility into its otherwise standard Hollywood plot. The upshot is a texture that’s like Almodóvar Lite; the women are gloriously over-the-top, the men are largely backgrounded, and the comic tone is gently, but sometimes surprisingly, risqué. For all the hoo-ha about Jane Fonda’s return to the screen after a 15-year hiatus, the bigger news is that her character is essentially a drag queen.
Monster-in-Law was directed by Robert Luketic, who previously helmed the first Legally Blonde and Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!, and in both he tried to enliven a drearily familiar, dated script with camp touches, to mixed results. (I thought Blonde more bubbleheaded than Elle Woods but found Win a Date cheesily ingratiating.) Working with characters whose brains were as mushy as their hearts, he couldn’t get at the incisive, ironic bitchiness that is the essence of camp. Here he has the benefit of working with a slightly smarter script, by Anya Kochoff (this is her first produced screenplay, reportedly semiautobiographical) and Richard LaGravenese (Living Out Loud, Beloved), and with a formidable pairing of divas.
Jennifer Lopez plays Charlie (from the block, one assumes), a sunny, down-to-earth girl who has a degree in design but works a variety of odd jobs to make ends meet. She’s a dogwalker, a waitress for a caterer, and a temp in a dentist’s office, yet, as she’s a character in a romantic comedy, she lives in a roomy, handsomely decorated, beach-adjacent apartment that she couldn’t possibly afford. Her two best friends live in the same building: Remy, the funny, handsome, and refreshingly un-queeny gay guy, and Morgan, the slightly-less-cute-than-the-lead gal pal who owns that catering company.
Everything seems to come easily for Charlie, so it’s no surprise when her horoscope says she’ll look up and see the man she’ll fall in love with, and a glance from her newspaper has her making eye contact with handsome, single, eminently marriageable Dr. Kevin Fields (Michael Vartan). There’s a mutual attraction, and soon enough they’re bumping into each other everywhere they go. It’s romantic comedy kismet, a force so powerful it can make Charlie overlook the fact that Kevin has been given no particular qualities and that Vartan plays him as so boringly, WASPishly bland that his presence barely registers. There’s a tiny bump in the road, in the form of Fiona, an old friend of Kevin’s who’s had her eye on him forever, but soon enough she’s out of the way, and Charlie and Kevin are on their way to a perfect life together.
But first Charlie must Meet the Parent(s). Kevin’s mother is Viola Fields (Fonda), a fiercely competitive, Barbara Walters-esque TV personality, host of a soul-baring talk show nudgingly named “Public Intimacy.” She’s just found out that the producers are replacing her with a bimbo half her age, and, in the midst of interviewing a vapid pop star obviously patterned on Britney Spears, Viola loses it and lunges across the stage, sending the singer sprawling.
After a few months in a chichi loony bin, she returns to her immense estate and loyal but wisecracking personal assistant Ruby (Wanda Sykes). A doting, demanding mom, Viola looks forward to a visit from her only child … until she finds out he’s bringing his new girlfriend.
She plays nice at first, putting on her best Stepford sunbonnet and matching grin, but when Kevin spontaneously proposes to Charlie over lunch, she wigs out. Not only has she lost her job to a younger woman, but now her maternal domination is threatened by one as well. And to top it off, Charlie’s a temp, of all things, an unwelcome note of working-class reality in Viola’s carefully manicured world. Viola nurses Charlie’s doubts and insecurities, hoping to persuade her to say no to Kevin, but Charlie’s faith in their love wins out. Soon Viola is determined to use her naturally passive-aggressive behavior to drive Charlie crazy and break up the couple. She feigns a nervous attack in order to worm her way into their new home and terrorize Charlie while Kevin is conveniently out of town, but she underestimates her adversary, and soon Charlie is turning the tables.
Luketic has fun with the contrasts between Fonda and Lopez, playing off their differences in age, figure, and manner, making them opposed but equally strong forces. Both actresses are game, spoofing their images and allowing their flaws to be mocked. When aging diva Viola hosts an engagement party in an outlandish getup, complete with Norma Desmond-style turban, she also forces Charlie to attempt to squeeze into a dress that makes her look like she’s got a whole junkyard in the trunk.
Fonda has said that she chose this film as her comeback vehicle over more serious fare because she wanted to have fun with acting again, and she shows a joy and a flair for physical comedy that wasn’t evident in her previous roles. Her performance here has the zany, go-for-broke comic energy that I associate more with Lily Tomlin or Bette Midler. The relish she puts into her Grand Guignol theatrics makes the brittle, histrionic Viola into a likable Gorgon. Lopez proves capable of keeping up, transforming Charlie from a sweet naïf into a nasty, vengeful bitch who raises the ante on Viola just when she thinks she’s winning the game.
Maybe it’s true what they say; perhaps we do all marry our mothers.
It’s Luketic’s camp take on the material that keeps both characters sympathetic in spite of their machinations; he gets a dirty kick out of the lows they’ll sink to in order to maintain control of the situation and makes them funnier and more human the more desperate they become.
It’s Wanda Sykes, though, who comes out on top. I generally don’t like characters that seem like nothing more than racial stereotypes, but when “the smart-mouthed black woman” has a mouth as genuinely smart as hers, I’m willing to make an exception. Sykes’ Ruby is a cross between a Greek chorus and the heckler in the back of the theater, popping up periodically to comment on the action, making no-nonsense assessments of Viola’s outlandish behavior and Charlie’s sudden transformation and undercutting the treacle of the predictably happy ending. In a scene where she and Fonda tussle in the kitchen at the rehearsal dinner, she has a line that is so wrong and yet so right that I suspect some in the audience will be quoting it for months. I’ve already started.
There’s another brilliant comic actress who puts in a delightful cameo at the climax, but I will reveal her name only under torture. Suffice it to say that this gay icon both offers up an important plot point (if indeed any points of this plot can be important) and steals the scene from both Fonda and Lopez.
Though it’s a slight, mostly forgettable comedy, there’s something new and interesting going on in Monster-in-Law. For all the popularity of non-threatening, domesticated gayness on TV shows like “Will and Grace” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” the gay male sensibility has been slow to find its way into mainstream films. Even those with central characters who are ostensibly gay tend to keep their distance from genuinely gay attitudes, yet Luketic has made a big-budget, romantic-comedy star vehicle and subversively sneaked in more camp value than the last three John Waters films combined. Either it’ll piss off cultural watchdogs like Michael Medved or more likely go right over their heads, and that alone is enough to make me smile.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()