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What Ever Happened to Lady Jane?

Fonda's humiliation is only one reason this Monster is such a dog

Jane Fonda comes from a good Hollywood family and used to be a pretty fair actress herself. Klute, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Coming Homewere three of the better films of their time. So, after getting a look at herself in her first movie in 15 years, La Fonda might go straight back to the house and stick her head in the oven. The director and cinematographer of Monster-in-Law take such cruel glee in exposing every wrinkle and ravage that's descended upon the 67-year-old actress that you have to wonder whether they both don't work for National Review or the John Birch Society. To be sure, Fonda has been cast as the "monster" of the title -- a conniving mother who will do anything to wreck her beloved doctor-son's romance with a sweet, simple young thing -- but that doesn't necessarily mean that she should look like a cross between Medusa and the Elephant Man.

The movie's pretty ugly too. Billed as a comedy, this low-wattage sitcom is both ill-tempered and mean-spirited -- not least when it's cracking antigay jokes and making snide suggestions about incest. Of course, if you're in the mood to watch two dogs screwing on a strip of Southern California beach while Jennifer Lopez reads her horoscope in the newspaper, maybe this is the picture for you.

Speaking of J.Lo, who plays the beleaguered fiancée, Charlotte, it's time to ask whether this fixture of the gossip page is ever going to take an acting lesson. The most appealing dramatic gifts she displays here are her lavender lip gloss and her long legs, and there's still such a vacancy behind those big liquid eyes that you have to ask what she's been snorting off the dance floor at Bungalow 8. Halfway through these proceedings, Charlotte (a.k.a. "Charlie") has a spat with her loverboy and proclaims: "I don't belong here." You can say that again.

The doctor-son, whose name is Kevin, is played by an attractive young actor, Michael Vartan, who's decorated with three days' worth of scenic stubble and, thanks to a tepid screenplay by a rookie named Anya Kochoff, has all kinds of pseudo-romantic things to say about how J.Lo's eye color changes in different lights. The heroine makes her own contributions to human insight. Sample: "Life's too short to live the same day twice." Fine, but don't tell that to the cast of Groundhog Day.

The only real attraction here -- a negative one -- is Fonda's apparent taste for self-mortification. Given her recent confessions, in print and on the boob tube, about the errors of her ways and the habits of her ex-husbands, maybe no one should be startled by the grotesque cartoonishness of her performance. On the other hand, surely there must be better paths to redemption than reducing yourself to a hideous caricature of decrepit self-absorption and screaming neurosis. The woman Fonda plays here is called Viola Fields, a four-times-married bitch-goddess who for decades has been a high-profile, Barbara Walters-style TV interviewer and who's consorted with everyone from Henry Kissinger to the Dalai Lama to Oprah Winfrey. But in Monster-in-Law's first reel, Viola is unceremoniously kicked out of the limelight and replaced by a younger, prettier talking head; that apparently gives the boozy, bitter old freak free rein to spend the rest of the film making life miserable for Kevin and Charlie.

"I could just kill that dog-walking slut," Viola snorts, her face twisted with rage. Indeed, she proceeds to tear asunder every plan the two lovers have, from courtship to engagement party to wedding day. Writer Kochoff's ideas of black comedy include Viola forcing upon her prospective daughter-in-law a huge, gloppy plate of steak-and-kidney pie ("mostly kidney," the devious chef announces), throwing a flagrant hissy fit in her bed and sending Sonny Boy's sleazy ex-girlfriend (Monet Mazur) up to his bedroom to seduce him. Naturally, we've also got the requisite monster-foil, in the familiar form of a sassy personal assistant named Ruby (Wanda Sykes), who deflates Viola's pretensions and vanities with a barrage of wisecracks.

Meanwhile, good old Kevin has some issues of his own -- although neither the writer nor Australian-born director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) seems to be particularly aware of them. The fact that their knight-in-shining-armor hero proposes marriage to the woman he loves with his disapproving hag of a mother sitting right there in the room seems to ring no bell -- Oedipal or otherwise -- in these moviemakers. Neither does the fact that Charlie really is an airhead without much to recommend her. The film doesn't want us to take up with Fonda's scheming witch, but beneath that time-savaged exterior, she's got a pretty good point: Young Charlotte's not much of a catch.

Enough. In the wake of Fonda's visual and dramatic disaster, we can but pray that she chooses never to make another movie. As it is, the right-wingers who've detested the woman for 40 years may want to catch this one just to see how macabre and awful she can look in harsh light -- but they'd better get down to the multiplex pretty fast. By, say, two weeks from Wednesday, Monster-in-Law and Jane Fonda's ruined road map of a face could be long gone.

 
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