A huge percentage of movies seem to actively hate women. Consider romantic comedies pitched to women, like Bride Wars, I Hate Valentine’s Day, previous Forgotbuster Failure To Launch, and today’s Forgotbuster, Monster-In-Law. All of them seem as iffy about the value of women as deliberately ugly movies like Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. This seems counterintuitive. Wouldn’t it make sense, from a commercial perspective, to flatter a film’s intended audience, rather than insulting them? Yet audiences seem to have a strangely boundless appetite for romantic comedies about horrible women being horrible to each other, generally over some empty suit of a man.
Monster-In-Law, 2005’s 23rd highest-grossing film, is a particularly egregious case, because it marks the cinematic return of Jane Fonda, one of the preeminent feminist voices of the past century, following a big-screen absence of 15 years. A fierce force like Fonda starring in a movie with gender politics this regressive, particularly after such a long absence, is like Gloria Steinem starting her own Lingerie Football League, in collaboration with Hooters.
Monster-In-Law casts Fonda as Viola Fields, a veteran newswoman with the impressive career of Diane Sawyer and the ethics and morality of Cruella De Vil. Viola has the misfortune of being a woman of a certain age in a culture that worships youth, and in the television business, which doubles down on that worship. So when she learns she’s about to be replaced by what appears to be a 20-year-old intern who just graduated from cheerleading academy, Viola snaps. Reduced to interviewing a Britney Spears surrogate (they were strangely ubiquitous in movies and TV around the time) who says she doesn’t support Roe V. Wade because she thinks boxing is too violent (a one-liner that would make Bruce Vilanch groan), Viola yells, then physically assaults the 16-year-old on television.
The prominent reference to Roe V. Wade, the landmark case that legalized abortion, somehow makes everything that follows even worse. It’s as if the filmmakers are letting us know that they know all about feminist history, feminist theory, and just plain feminism (how could they not, with Fonda as their star?), yet choose to depict women as conniving shrews all the same.
After a long, restful stay in a sanitarium of some sort, Viola re-enters society to a horrifying discovery: While she wasn’t paying attention, her hunky son, Dr. Kevin Fields (Michael Vartan), whose hobbies include jogging on the beach in slow motion and disappearing from the film for long stretches, has fallen in love with a simple commoner. Jennifer Lopez plays Charlie, the woman Kevin falls for. The film tips the scales ever so slightly in her favor by making her the nicest person in the world, in addition to being breathtakingly beautiful. In Monster-In-Law, Charlie is a human rainbow who delights everyone around her with her extreme kindness and ebullient personality.
There is no reason for Viola to resent or dislike Charlie, beyond some weird Oedipal issues with her son and an ugly combination of sexism, body-shaming (Viola repeatedly makes comments to the effect that Charlie is borderline-obese), racism, and classism. Oh, and she’s crazy. As her assistant and sidekick Ruby (Wanda Sykes) says, Viola is way past the normal level of crazy, and into the “frothing at the mouth” category.
Buried deep within Monster-In-Law is a sensitive exploration of a woman who has been at the top of a male-dominated field for decades, gets robbed of her professional identity by the demands of a youth-obsessed culture, and has to navigate how that affects her perception of her son and his fiancée. Director Robert Luketic and writer Anya Kochoff are not interested in making that movie. They’re invested in a story where women are in a state of permanent internecine warfare, which is usually poisonously passive-aggressive, but sometimes outright brutal. Rather than write her memoirs or work on herself, Viola decides to sabotage her son’s relationship partially because she needs a project, and partially because she really is mortified at the idea of her golden god of a son marrying someone as common as a temp. (Fonda utters the word “temp” with the vitriol someone might use to utter “serial rapist,” or “highway hooker.”)
It’s hard to single out a specific problematic scene when almost nothing in the film works, beyond Sykes, plus Adam Scott as Charlie’s sassy gay best friend. (And that only works because it’s Adam Scott.) But there is a particularly horrifying moment when Kevin, who apparently has only a vague sense of his mother’s toxic personality and pathological competitive streak, proposes to Charlie in front of Viola—who helpfully rejects her son’s marriage proposal on Charlie’s behalf. Viola argues that it’s far too early for these lovebirds to get hitched, especially when one party is an underemployed Hispanic with wide hips, and the other is the world’s hunkiest doctor. In what universe do mothers answer marriage proposals on behalf of their sons? To give a sense of the film’s style: Kevin’s proposal is greeted by a cartoon look of horror from Viola, the telltale soundtrack record-scratch signaling something wacky happening, and a whip-pan to Ruby shaking her head at those crazy white people and their crazy customs.
Monster-In-Law is deeply immersed in the virgin/whore dynamic. Viola is vilified for having slept her way to the top, and then sleeping around further once she got there. Charlie’s relative lack of sexual history is a big part of what makes her theoretically sympathetic. In the movie’s judgmental, reductive worldview, good girls refrain from sex, pine for Mr. Right, and have adorable jobs like professional dog-walker, while bad girls have sex for professional gain, are obsessed with their careers, and completely lack an inner life.
The first two thirds of Monster-In-Law are largely devoted to Viola being horrible to her future daughter-in-law and trying to destroy her relationship by any means necessary. In yet another example of the the film’s lazy storytelling, the film reveals early on that Charlie is allergic to a wide variety of substances. In movies like this, allergies always exist for a narrative reason. Sure enough, Viola uses Charlie’s allergies against her, but the only results are a few hours of puffy lips and mild discomfort. Finally, Charlie is pushed too far and decides to go to war with Viola, and there’s an extended scene of these two pop icons, from different worlds and different generations, slapping the hell out of each other for a solid minute. Because that’s apparently what audiences in 2005 wanted.
Fonda has made half a dozen films since Monster-In-Law, but other than Lee Daniels’ The Butler, where she had an extended cameo as Nancy Reagan, Monster-In-Law is her top-grossing film of the past quarter-century. It would be great to report that Fonda transcends her tacky surroundings, but her brittle, desperately unlikable performance goes a long way toward ensuring there is no laughter to be had here, just the sad decline of someone who once embodied a new, stronger, and more uncompromising breed of woman, and now must confront a world that has a horrible habit of tossing even luminaries like her into the dustbin of history. I am generally a fan of the comedy of discomfort, at least of the manner perfected by Elaine May, Charles Grodin, and the British version of The Office. But I am not a fan of convoluted discomfort masquerading as comedy, which is exactly what Monster-In-Law offers. I felt uncomfortable every single minute of the film. Fonda, in her comeback role, deserves so much more, but then don’t we all?