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Cutting a dutiful swath through the chat shows to promote her
new tell-almost-all memoir, Jane Fonda looked as though she could use some comic
relief. The set of that precisely defined jaw, inherited with a ton of other
baggage from her famous father, grew tighter by the hour as this survivor of
serial male domination slogged grimly through the account of why she’d succumbed
with so little fight to her irascible dad and the philanderers she subsequently
hitched herself to. Over and over she told interviewers that she felt she deserved
no better, and I’m sure that’s true. Life with Henry (their relationship was
painfully etched into the barely fictional On Golden Pond) and a suicidal
mother was probably enough to make any woman feel that she deserved no better
than the husbands she got.

Still, watching Fonda pare herself down to a single, therapeutically
fortified narrative in which she “takes responsibility” for her wretched
choice of partners was scary and dispiriting. By any measure, the actress and
activist has led a colorful life, and she’s done good works by the score, most
of which are listed, in lieu of her many film roles, in the production notes
for her new movie. I’m happy for her and the millions of women who look up to
her that she ditched the breast implants and got herself otherwise empowered.
But one hopes, in a very rich woman of 67, for a little less steely self-absorption
and a touch more humor about the common and uncommon mistakes she’s made. If
nothing else, her new movie, Monster-in-Law, gives Fonda the opportunity
to lighten up and show off the virago within. God knows, the movie has precious
little else to offer, even with the reliably radiant Jennifer Lopez onboard
to play the unsuspecting competition for mommie dearest’s precious son. A protracted
monster-mom joke of the most predictable kind, Monster-in-Law was written by
Anya Kochoff, who is good for the occasional gag line but not to be depended
upon for dialogue that anybody might actually say, and directed by Robert Luketic
with considerably less verve than he brought to that amusing trifle Legally
Blonde. Kochoff calls Monster-in-Law a “bride-as-underdog”
story, and it will do, barely, as a cautionary date movie for the young and
marriage-minded. But if the screening I attended is anything to go by, this
is a gay men’s movie whose primary function is to doll Fonda up like a drag
queen and let her rip.

But not before a leisurely introduction to her prey, Charlie (Lopez),
a lowly temp who, it goes without saying, is a gifted painter when off duty.
So sweet is Charlie that she kisses a photo of her dead parents before leaving
for work each day and is endlessly forbearing with her endlessly kooky Melrose
Place pals (Adam Scott and Annie Parisse). She falls for Kevin (Michael Vartan),
a young physician with excellent teeth who will have little to do for the duration
but wring his hands while the cats fight. Before you can say, cut-scene-two,
Charlie and Kevin are shacked up and planning a becomingly modest little wedding.
Enter Mom, a.k.a. Viola, a recently fired talk-show host of the Murphy Brown
variety with other ideas about everything from the color of the bridesmaids’
dresses to the suitability of this fortune-hunting hussy, or any other, for
her beloved offspring. She moves in, throws dishes and hissy fits, changes outfits
like a runway pro, and manipulates the hell out of the good-natured bride-to-be.
Lopez, who is not built for demure, only comes into her own when she begins
to respond in kind, and from then on you can set your alarm for the bitch-slapping
sequence, followed by home truths, reconciliation and joyful nuptials.

Hysteria doesn’t come naturally to the reserved Fonda, but she
throws herself into this melee like a trouper, and really, she’s awfully sweet
with her hair all mussed, or pitched face-forward into a plate of horrible food,
or as a wrathful vision in peach frills. Too bad that she’s both upstaged and
outflanked, first by comedian Wanda Sykes, who gets all the best lines as Viola’s
less than long-suffering assistant, Ruby, and then by the ineffable Elaine Stritch,
who shows up for a showstopping cameo as Viola’s own implacable mother-in-law.
If Luketic can field this lot, there’s no telling what he’ll do with the monster
moms in his next project, a feature adaptation of the prime-time soap Dallas.

Monster-in-Law may be warmed-over camp, but, just in time
for Mother’s Day, it does have one thing going for it. Though hardly flattering,
it’s the most affectionate and forgiving celluloid portrait of a mom I’ve seen
since Albert Brooks’ far superior Mother. Even a cursory rummage through
recent American cinema feels like a ride through a maternal hell peopled with
timid, neurotic, controlling or critically absent mother figures. Consider the
smiling ballbusters played by Ellen Barkin and Debra Monk in Todd Solondz’s
Palindromes, or Téa Leoni’s weak, possessive widow in David Duchovny’s
House of D, or Emily Mortimer’s overprotective single mom in Dear
Frankie
. Howard Hughes’ mother appears as a 60-second bookend at either
end of The Aviator, just long enough to set her up as the cause of all
his troubles. Meryl Streep gives a delicious performance as the conniving bitch
ruining Liev Schreiber’s life in The Manchurian Candidate. As a vagina
with teeth, she is outshone only by that nice Mrs. Goebbels in Downfall,
calmly popping cyanide pills into her sleeping children’s mouths so that they
can follow the beloved Führer into eternity. Bridget Jones’ mum is flighty
and narcissistic. Mean Girls has one of those cringe-making mothers who
want to dress like their daughters and be their girlfriends. In Tarnation,
Jonathan Caouette’s childlike, manic-depressive mom is at once the love and
the scourge of his life. And my 7-year-old recently asked me why all the children’s
movies we see — Lemony Snicket, Finding Nemo, Fly Away Home, to
name but a few — begin with dead or fled mothers. Not to mention the wicked
stepmothers, or godmothers, like the scheming, blue-rinsed fairy in Shrek
2
.

There’s nothing especially new about all this foaming ambivalence,
which reaches way back before Now, Voyager and the psychoanalytically
inspired maternal dramas of the ’30s and ’40s to the Brothers Grimm,
back through Lady Macbeth, to the wrathful goddesses and black widows of ancient
Greece. In children’s tales, mothers are sent packing in part for plot purposes,
to open a path to trouble and adventure for their unprotected offspring. But
you don’t have to be Freud to understand the churning love and murderous rage
aroused in all of us, and particularly in the men who mostly remain in charge
of our storytelling, by the one woman who from our babyhood has exercised absolute
control over our helplessness. No wonder pop history is littered with maternal
putdowns.

What is striking about the depiction of mothers in current cinema
is its schizoid compartmentalization into gorgons and saints. Given the choice,
I’ll take a well-rounded Medusa over a paragon any day. I’m partial to the desperate
housewives, and I can get behind any movie virago if she has a bit of pep to
her. The movie maters you have to watch out for are worthies like the truly
scary Vera Drake, a trembly, whispering, asexual blob of unmitigated
self-sacrifice whose monolithic nobility I didn’t believe in for a nanosecond.
Fonda is loads more fun and persuasive losing it in Monster-in-Law than she
is as a put-upon daughter, or a mother paying perfunctory lip service to her
children in interviews. Viola, at least, is not all mom — she’s a woman too,
and how rare is that at the movies these days? For my money, the movie Mother
of the Year is The Incredibles’ Elastigirl, a brave and versatile chick
who discovers that she can serve her family just as well as a long-armed savior
of the world as by hanging up her hat in a suburban tract house.

MONSTER-IN-LAW | Directed by ROBERT LUKETIC | Written by
ANYA KOCHOFF | Produced by PAULA WEINSTEIN | Released by New Line Cinema | Citywide

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