(2005) * 1/2 Pg-13
95 min. New Line Cinema. Director: Robert Luketic. Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Jane Fonda, Michael Vartan, Wanda Sykes, Adam Scott.

If you've ever wondered what Jane Fonda would look like while scaring off a bear, the ghastly Monster-In-Law is the movie for you. Overacting like there's no tomorrow, Fonda plays the title character, a mother so wrapped up in her son's life that the thought of a daughter-in-law inspires violently protective instincts. To be fair, Fonda's famous interviewer Viola Fields is in the throes of a nervous breakdown following a career collapse, and she hasn't responded particularly well to her therapy. Still, this miscalculated attempt to follow Robert DeNiro into comedy hit-making couldn't hit the broad side of a barn.

Director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) and first time screenwriter Anya Kochoff (if that's your real name) conspire to half-bake this maddeningly upbeat black comedy. As Viola's son Kevin, Michael Vartan is supposed to be so pure-hearted that he doesn't notice his mother is a witch (perhaps he was raised by nannies). That complicates matters with his fiancee Charlotte "Charlie" Cantilini (Jennifer "Jenny From the Block" Lopez), who must immediately go on the defensive from her mother-in-law-to-be. Before long, the two declare full-out war.

That'd be just fine if any of this were actually funny, in the high-blood-pressure vein of War of the Roses, but anyone who's ever seen a romantic comedy before will immediately recognize the toothlesslessness of Monster-in-Law. The nasty behavior follows a certain cracked logic, but audiences can sympathize neither with Fonda nor Lopez: we can sympathize with the irrational and vindictive, but only if they have good qualities, too. Neither woman acts with any common sense, since that would deflate the plot. Worse, the resolution suggests that the characters are born again in the blink of an eye.

As Fonda's personal assistant, Wanda Sykes delivers lame wisecracks and fails to clarify her thinly drawn character: why has she endured this job so long? For love or money? Does she care about this dysfunctional relationship or not? Who knows. The only thing to keep audiences in seats would be anticipation of Elaine Stritch's eventual appearance. The veteran actress brings a breath of fresh air to the cinematic equivalent of a dungeon, but it's too little too late. Mostly, I laughed at the jokes, not with them, as when a crazed Fonda blows an air-horn, chirps, "I'm sorry—I thought it was air-freshener!" kicks her head back, and cackles like Margaret Hamilton.

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