- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2005

Since Jennifer Lopez has raised the ire of, and subsequently stood up to, the anti-fur zealots, I decided I’d give the girl a second chance.

Then I saw “Monster-in-Law,” in which Miss Lopez reprises her patented ethnic underdog persona — you know, the “Jenny From the Block,” “Maid in Manhattan” thing, where Miss Lopez diffidently, but unapologetically, keeps it real and hoists the socialites by their own petard.

Meanwhile, we’re supposed to forget that she’s a lunatic on wheels.

Sorry, J.-Lo, I couldn’t budge; you still can’t act.

Fortunately for “Monster,” it’s the comeback vehicle for Jane Fonda, who is out from under the thumb of the ghastly Ted Turner, for whom she gave up acting 15 years ago (happily, she has said in interviews for her new memoir).

Miss Fonda chews the scenery here like an actress who hasn’t chewed scenery for 15 years. Her appetite is ravenous; occasionally, she slobbers, but mostly, she devours.

In this perfect-for-a-plane-ride comedy, directed by Robert Luketic (“Legally Blonde”), Miss Fonda plays Viola Fields, a hard-hitting, type-triple-A television journalist who is elbowed aside by her network for someone younger. Basically, her job is to look fabulous for her age and behave vilely. Easy enough for an old pro like Miss Fonda, who’s 67 and sports a figure that women half her age — heck, a quarter her age — would kill for.

Vile Viola rages against the network machine while interviewing a dunderheaded Britney Spears-like pop diva. She flips out on the air and attacks faux Britney. The psychotic tantrum lands her in a funny farm for the rich, where she unconvincingly fakes a recovery.

I suppose I should mention the movie’s other principal stars at this point. Would that they weren’t so broad-comedy conventional. Miss Lopez is Charlie, a free-spirited (aren’t they always?) odd-jobber who has yet to find her niche in life. (They never can, can they?) The movie was shot in Malibu or Zuma Beach or some other enchanting Southern California locale that makes odd-jobbing look like what people do in paradise.

Charlie’s love life is, as the “Friends” song says, dead on arrival. (Yeah, whatever.) She has the requisite homosexual male friend (Adam Scott). Twice in one day, dog-walking in the morning and schlepping hors d’oeuvres for her best girlfriend’s catering company at night, she bumps into a certain hunky doctor (Michael Vartan), who happens, impossibly, to be unattached.

Aside from the fact that he talks to Mom four times a day, Kevin Fields, only child of Viola and the apple of her eye, is perfect: a world-class surgeon and world-class stud who doesn’t mind that Jenny comes from the block. First-time scripter Anya Kochoff wisely writes past the couple’s courting period and zooms straight to engagement, whereupon the movie becomes a reasonably likeable farce of tit-for-tat hijinks.

Viola can’t countenance the union of her son, a doctor, to a girl who temps for a doctor. So, with the reluctant help of her trusty assistant, Ruby (stand-up comedienne Wanda Sykes, a font of hilarious one-liners), Viola undertakes to sabotage the wedding by smothering her prospective daughter-in-law into submission.

Viola plays mean and dirty. She moves into the couple’s pad; fakes nervous breakdowns; and, in what’s supposed to be one of the movie’s most endearing scenes, covertly forces Miss Lopez into a dress that doesn’t make it past her posterior. (She’s still Jenny From the Block — or did you forget?)

While Kevin is away for a medical conference, Charlie learns to fight back and give as good as she’s been getting. One of Charlie’s ruses leaves a knocked-unconscious Miss Fonda’s face in a plate of food all night.

Here’s hoping that scene doesn’t become a metaphor for the old bird’s return to the screen. “Monster-in-Law” isn’t good, but thanks to Miss Fonda, it’s not bad, either.

**

TITLE: “Monster-in-Law”

RATING: PG-13 (Profanity, sexual references)

CREDITS: Directed by Robert Luketic. Produced by Chris Bender, Richard Brener, Julio Caro, Magnus Kim, J.C. Spink and Paula Weinstein. Written by Anya Kochoff. Cinematography by Russell Carpenter. Original music by David Newman.

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.monsterinlaw.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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