Without even trying, beautiful dog-walker and “temp” employee Charlotte “Charlie” Cantilini falls for good-looking Doctor Kevin Fields in a big way. The two seem destined for happiness until Kevin takes her home to meet his mom. Viola Fields is a world-famous TV news interviewer (think Barbara Walters) recently fired and recently released from forced psychiatric care following the resulting breakdown.
When Kevin proposes and Charlie accepts, Viola snaps. No son of hers will marry a “low-class temp.” With the reluctant help of her loyal and wisecracking assistant Ruby, Viola makes it her mission to break up the pair by convincing Charlie that life with Kevin’s crazy momma won’t be worth the trouble. She soon learns, though, that Charlie is no pushover. Scheming, slapping and shenanigans ensue.
Charlie is a good-hearted person who (mostly) makes an effort to forge an uneasy peace with her future mother-in-law. And in spite of playing into the negative stereotype of mothers-in-law everywhere, the film eventually makes a strong statement about forgiveness, the wisdom of previous generations, and the value of extended family, especially in the lives of grandchildren. It’s also a 90-minute commercial for honest communication and setting clear boundaries in those relationships.
Charlie’s horoscope tells her love is right in front of her just before she sees Kevin for the first time. Later, she and her friends play with tarot cards. Charlie describes herself as more spiritual than religious.
While trying to control her anger, Viola sits cross-legged and prays something like, “Holy Spirit, surround me with light and rid me of negative karma.” Viola imagines Kevin looking like Jesus. Later, she gives Charlie a large cross as a gift, and eventually clutches that cross and pretends to read the Bible to feign sanctity.
Charlie’s friends call her a freak for not having had sex in a while. Ruby says Charlie has had fewer lovers in her life than Viola had on the final day of Woodstock. However, Charlie and Kevin do move in together before the wedding and manage to kiss and make out several times. They talk about showering together, they roll around on the couch, and they begin to have phone sex while Charlie is in a tub (fully covered by bubbles). Kevin is also kissed suggestively by an aggressive ex-girlfriend. And Charlie is seen comically struggling into a revealing dress that’s much too small for her.
Charlie’s best friend/neighbor is a gay guy who ends up going out with another male character. Kevin is falsely described by an ex-girlfriend as about to enter a gay marriage (as the “husband or wife, top or bottom, I don’t remember”). Charlie is surprised her “gaydar” isn’t working, and her friend later makes a crude sexual gesture behind Kevin’s back to confirm that Kevin is not gay, after all. One of Viola’s four husbands is said to have been a gay actor, having had an affair with another of her ex-husbands.
A Britney-style pop singer dances suggestively while performing in a revealing outfit. Sexual humor includes jokes about “balls,” dogs acting sexually, a “dislocated vagina” and an adult male character who dates/hits on very young women (including a teen). Viola calls Charlie a “slut fornicating with her son” and describes male “erections” as “pointing to the trampiest woman” available. Ruby describes the much younger Kevin as a “nice piece of a–.”
In the course of their conflict, Charlie and Viola punch, slap and poison each other with convincing ferocity. And they imagine themselves doing much worse (including pounding faces repeatedly into cakes and hitting heads with frying pans). Of course, all the violence is played for slapsticky laughs, including Viola’s breakdown-induced attack of another woman on live TV.
The names of God and Jesus are each used as profanity. The s-word is heard about five times, as are “d–n” and “a–.” Other foul terms heard include “h—,” “b–ch” and repeated uses of “slut.” The word “mother” is followed by the start of the f-word before it gets cut off.
Most characters drink socially. After being released from a psychiatric institution, Viola resists drinking for her mental wellbeing. However, she quickly caves in (for laughs) to the stress-induced cravings for stronger and stronger alcohol. She also drinks while supposedly taking heavy meds. A character is drugged with those meds for revenge, while another is intentionally exposed to a food to which she has a dangerous allergy.
Though not the focus of the film, Viola is a strong supporter of abortion rights. She is angered when someone doesn’t know what Roe v. Wade is, and she suggests Charlie could consider an abortion (or adoption or lesbianism) when she wrongly assumes Kevin and Charlie are marrying due to a pregnancy.
Obscene gestures are made as a joke. People with mental illness are referred to as being crazy and going to the “nut house.” Though never stated outright, some may infer that Viola’s disapproval of Charlie is based, in part, on race. (Another character speaks of her approvingly as an “exotic Latina.”)
Even in 2005, the mention of Jane Fonda still inspires strong emotion. The daughter of Hollywood legend Henry Fonda has garnered controversy, animosity and respect—depending on to whom you’re talking—for her outspoken positions on war, race issues, abortion and other divisive topics. I suspect, however, that those who catch her much-hyped return to the big screen will be nearly united in their disappointment with Monster-in-Law.
It’s not for lack of trying. Fonda plays her whacked-out TV diva/mom so far over the top, most of the other actors seem to be standing still. In fact, she’s just too far over, delivering a grating, manic performance I kept wishing director Robert Luketic had turned down a notch or two. Jennifer Lopez is left to her by-the-numbers romance with Alias’ Michael Vartan and playing it mostly straight to Fonda’s nutiness.
Part of the problem is that Viola’s need to save her son from Charlie just never makes sense. The story fails to connect with any of the real tension so common between spouses and in-laws. All we get is that Viola is “crazy,” turning the film into a light, unfunny horror comedy instead of a real relationship laugher. Only at the end of the movie, when the two women inevitably make up, do their characters begin to feel genuine. And then it’s too late.
Add to that an above average amount of crude sexual content for a romantic comedy, and it’s tough to scare up any good reasons to catch this Monster movie.