Fonda and Sykes shine in Monster-in-Law
By Lady Liberty
Kicking and Screaming
* out of ****
I'm not normally much of a fan for silly comedies, but Will Ferrell was such a hoot in Elf that it made perfect sense to me to take a look at him in Kicking and Screaming. Let me tell you this much about Kicking and Screaming: It ain't no Elf!
Buck Weston (Robert Duvall) owns a chain of sporting goods stores, and is a sports fanatic. It only goes to follow, then, that he'd have high expectations for his son, Phil (Will Ferrell). Unfortunately, though he's tried all of his life, Phil just isn't much of an athlete. When Phil meets and marries Barbara (Kate Walsh), his father once again outdoes him by almost simultaneously marrying the much younger Janice (Musetta Vander). And when Barbara gives birth to Phil's son, Sam (Dylan McLaughlin), Janice gives Buck a son they name Bucky (Josh Hutcherson). Bucky turns out to be everything that Phil — and Sam — are not. He's rough, tough, and athletic and the pride of Buck's soccer team. Poor Sam is merely a bench warmer on the same team, and matters only get worse when his own grandfather trades him to the worst team in the league.
Phil is righteously indignant on behalf of his son, and his anger and pride combine with circumstances to make him the coach of the losing Tigers. Phil at least has the sense to know when he's in too deep, and so he seeks some assistance. Fortunately for him, his father's longtime neighbor — and enemy — has a little coaching experience himself. Mostly because he's looking to annoy Buck, Mike Ditka (who plays himself in the film) agrees to be Phil's assistant coach. But even the great Ditka can't make the Tigers into much more than they already are. Then Phil discovers a secret weapon that could prove to make the Tigers a contender, and he begins to concentrate on winning the next match — and then the next — to the exclusion of everything else, even his own son.
Will Ferrell is a terrific comedic actor, but he's quite literally given nothing to work with in this film. The story is unbelievably trite and predictable; and the script isn't even remotely funny. This is a movie billed as a comedy, and yet I didn't laugh. In fact, I didn't even smile. Not once. The direction is ham-handed, almost as if trying too hard will make something that's not even remotely amusing somehow funny. It doesn't. And poor Robert Duvall is woefully miscast here. Though he does his formidable best, he's also got nothing to work with and so his bluster falls flat. The only person who comes off remotely ahead here is Mike Ditka. Certainly many non-actors have played themselves in bit movie parts in the past. But this role is not a bit part, and Ditka is surprisingly no non-actor. He's actually pretty good! The rest of the movie, however, is not.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Kicking and Screaming is rated PG for "thematic elements, language, and some crude humor." There's not really anything unsuitable for kids in the film that I could see, but there are some more mature undercurrents (the rivalry between father and son, for example, and Phil's constant futile efforts to make his father proud of him) that require a more mature viewer to grasp. The real problem with Kicking and Screaming is that it's a comedy that isn't at all funny. And without laughs, it has neither a plot nor anything else that make it worth watching. I don't recommend Kicking and Screaming for anyone of any age.
** 1/2 out of ****
The critics haven't been particularly kind to Monster-in-Law (though most have raved about Jane Fonda's performance), and I personally don't think that Jennifer Lopez has a whole lot of acting talent. But a friend of mine chose to see this movie over Kicking and Screaming (good choice!), and so I ended up sitting next to her in the theatre albeit a little reluctantly.
Charlotte "Charlie" Cantilini (Jennifer Lopez) is something of an eclectic personality. Though she considers herself a dog walker, she also does temporary duties at a doctor's office, is an artist, and a wannabe fashion designer to boot. Her friends Remy (Adam Scott) and Morgan (Annie Parisse) are just about as off beat as she is, but there's one difference: They think Charlie could use a good man, while Charlie claims she doesn't really feel the lack. Enter handsome doctor Kevin Fields (Michael Vartan) who, through a series of happenstances, proves to the the good man that Charlie now sees she was lacking after all. In fact, there's just one bad thing about Kevin: his mother.
Viola Fields (Jane Fonda) is a nationally known news show host who knows virtually everybody and is self-assured about herself and her place in the world to say the least. But when she's summarily fired to be replaced by a younger woman, everything she thinks she knows is upended and she promptly has a breakdown. After several months of psychiatric care, she's finally released to the care of her long-suffering assistant, Ruby (Wanda Sykes). In her delicate state, the last thing she needs is to discover her much-beloved son is about to marry the woman of his dreams and her nightmares!
Jennifer Lopez still doesn't have a whole lot of acting talent, but even I have to admit that she's gotten better. And this film is a suitable vehicle for her given that she's not required to stretch beyond sappy sweet smiles, a few giggles, and some moments of feisty paybacks. Michael Vartan, too, acquits himself acceptably. But despite their central roles, this movie isn't about Lopez or Vartan. It is, in fact, about Jane Fonda and, in a supporting role, Wanda Sykes. Fortunately for this movie, the two are just terrific. Jane Fonda may not have chosen the best script for her first feature film in more than a decade, but she certainly steps up to the plate and delivers far, far better than this movie deserves. And Sykes is a wonderfully droll foil for the melodramatic Fonda's antics.
The story isn't a new one, and the script doesn't offer any thrilling new twists and turns. But the direction is good, some of the acting is good and the rest is spectacular, and most importantly of all, this movie is actually funny. Neither my friend or I laugh easily at movies. It could be because we've seen so many. It could also be because we're both more than a little cynical. But she and I laughed throughout Monster-in-Law, and that's certainly got to count for something.
POLITICAL NOTES: Jane Fonda has made some very serious mistakes politically speaking in her past. In fact, it's been tempting to urge a boycott of her "comeback" role. But the fact that she has now called her behavior in Viet Nam her "worst mistake" and has indicated that she regrets what she did (she claims to have not fully understood the implications of what she was doing at the time) is a plus in her favor as is her lukewarm apology. Though I'm not prepared to forgive what I truly consider treasonous actions, it's also only fair to say that I also don't believe that Fonda's behavior in any way compares with something like, say, what Robert Hansen did in giving over state secrets, or what the Senate did last Tuesday when it established a National ID card.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Monster-in-Law is rated PG-13 for "sex references and language." I've certainly seen far worse, and so have most kids. But the story itself is something that only older kids and adults will understand or relate to, and most of the humor is fairly adult in nature at least as far as being able to "get" the jokes is concerned. I'd consider Monster-in-Law okay for kids of perhaps 14 and up and, of course, for adults. One added note that could be important to some of you: I suspect that women will find the movie far more entertaining than men will. But with that caveat, I'll also tell you that the critics are right about Fonda and Sykes, but wrong about the movie as a whole. If nothing else, this film is well worth the price of admission, and will certainly deliver 90 minutes or so of laughs which is worth even more.
Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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