Jane Fonda returns to the screen after 15 years as more a high concept than an actual character in "Monster-in-Law." This shrill, undermotivated, feature-length catfight between Jennifer Lopez's demure prospective bride and Fonda's unhinged prospective mother-in-law makes sure to underline, boldface and exclamation-point every plot turn and line of dialogue.

Jane Fonda returns to the screen after 15 years as more a high concept than an actual character in “Monster-in-Law.” This shrill, undermotivated, feature-length catfight between Jennifer Lopez’s demure prospective bride and Fonda’s unhinged prospective mother-in-law makes sure to underline, boldface and exclamation-point every plot turn and line of dialogue. No matter how undernourished the comedy and credibility may be, however, the allure of this star combo enacting this premise will prove irresistible to femme-driven mass audiences, who will make New Line’s gaudy romantic farce a big early summer winner.

Revealing instincts more attuned to commercial hooks than to character insight or plausibility, first-time scripter Anya Kochoff’s story recycles fairy tale motifs from such previous Lopez vehicles as “The Wedding Planner” and “Maid in Manhattan.” And by casting Fonda as a Barbara Walters-like TV host, the film acknowledges the fact that Fonda may be more familiar to young contempo viewers as a celebrity wife-social activist-workout queen than as a thesp.

Fonda’s grand entrance is preceded by 15 minutes of innocuous table-setting in which Lopez’s Charlie is established as a good girl who juggles jobs as a dog walker, medical receptionist and caterer to make ends meet — and finally meets her dream man in the person of Kevin Fields (Michael Vartan), a successful young surgeon never lacking for three-day male model stubble.

Within a minute of being introduced, Fonda’s Viola Fields, the very picture of an ultra-professional broadcast veteran, is brought low by being summarily fired. On her final show, she deliberately humiliates a dimwitted Britney Spears type by asking her serious questions about subjects like Roe v. Wade (the singer responds by claiming she doesn’t follow boxing) before attempting to strangle her interviewee, a move that sends Viola into therapy for months.

Pic could have done with a little of Viola in her prime before the fall; as it is, she’s just a madwoman desperate to exert a semblance of the control and authority she formerly wielded. As it is, the only target for her iron whim is her son Kevin’s new girlfriend. In a strange scene, Kevin seizes the occasion of the first meeting between Viola and Charlie to get down on his knees and ask Charlie to marry him right in front of his mother.

Notwithstanding the preceding gossip about how Kevin might be gay, this is carrying the notion of a mama’s boy to unprecedented lengths. More to the point, however, is how the scene points up Kochoff’s having neglected to develop a personality for Kevin at all; for the only child of a fabulously wealthy, career-obsessed celebrity who’s just emerged from rehab, Kevin has no issues at all. He’s a bland dreamboat, enacted as such by Vartan.

Which leaves things to the two women. Viola goes after Charlie because, in her unfocused fury at the world, she has nothing better to do; “I am going to save my son,” she declares.

First she throws a glamorous party meant to make the mere “temp” feel totally out of place. Failing at this, Viola swings in the other direction by dictating every detail of the proposed wedding. At one point, Viola demeans Charlie as a “Latina,” unconvincingly so in that this sort of prejudice seems alien to her makeup.

Finally, the sparring becomes physical in a literal bitch-slapping contest that comes off as more inevitable than particularly outrageous or entertaining. When Viola’s onetime mother-in-law, played by the ever-formidable Elaine Stritch, at length turns up to restore order, the effect should be far more satisfying than it is. But the sense is, if Charlie can handle Viola, she’s going to roll right over the terminally tame Kevin, now that she’s got him all to herself.

Looking tip-top and attractively photographed by Russell Carpenter, Fonda brings a businesslike approach to her portrayal of irrationality and hysteria. Certainly she’s the main attraction here, as Lopez delivers her customary low-key, emotionally open perf that provides easy but uncompelling access. Wanda Sykes provides verve to the borderline anachronistic role of Viola’s sassy black assistant who always has a remark to make about her boss’s antics. Charlie has her own sidekick, gay neighbor Remy (Adam Scott), to deliver quips about her choices.

“Legally Blonde” helmer Robert Luketic is content to make the proceedings bright and snappy and leave it at that. Making things feel even more contrived and cutesy than they already are is David Newman’s score, a noodling creation that doesn’t offer music so much as mood punctuation.

Monster-in-Law

Production

A New Line Cinema release of a Benderspink/Spring Creek production. Produced by Paula Weinstein, Chris Bender, JC Spink. Executive producers, Michael Flynn, Toby Emmerich, Richard Brener. Directed by Robert Luketic. Screenplay, Anya Kochoff.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen), Russell Carpenter; editors, Scott Hill, Kevin Tent; music, David Newman; music supervisor, Dana Sano; production designer, Missy Stewart; art director, James F. Truesdale; set designers, Anthony Parillo, Andrew Menzies; set decorator, Susan Mina Eschelbach; costume designer, Kym Barrett; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital/DTS), Steve Cantamessa; supervising sound editor, Michael Chock; supervising sound mixers, Gary Bourgeois, Greg Orloff; associate producer, Magnus Kim; assistant director, Nicholas Mastandrea; casting, Ronna Kress. Reviewed at New Line screening room, Los Angeles, April 30, 2005. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Charlie Cantilini - Jennifer Lopez Viola Fields - Jane Fonda Kevin Fields - Michael Vartan Ruby - Wanda Sykes Remy - Adam Scott Fiona - Monet Mazur Morgan - Annie Parisse Kit - Will Arnett Gertrude - Elaine Stritch

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