May 18, 2005 at 12:00 am

As if things weren’t bad enough for Jane Fonda. First, her name and image are used as divining rods in the 2004 presidential campaign, then, last month while promoting her long-awaited memoir, she gets a face full of tobacco, spewed from a deranged non-fan. And now, after 15 years of retirement, the woman who once performed opposite some of the greatest actors of our time has decided to return to the silver screen, taking second billing to J-Lo in a slapstick comedy produced by New Line, one of her mogul ex-husband’s former companies.

Don’t call it a comeback — really, don’t. Monster-in-Law is a mirthless, insufferably chipper gloss on Meet the Parents, the third such movie to get dumped on audiences in the past few months, after Meet the Fockers and the similar Guess Who. The movie opens with a dignified career woman’s breakdown, not unlike the one that kicked off last year’s atrocious Stepford Wives remake: Fonda’s Viola Fields is a Barbara Walters-ish talk show host; after learning that she’s lost her job, she berates a brainless teen pop star on the show and is committed to a sanitarium. Meanwhile, her successful surgeon son Kevin (an emaciated Michael Vartan) is busy initiating a sickly sweet PG-13 romance with Charlie (Jennifer Lopez), a shy, stars-in-her-eyes temp who walks dogs, caters parties and examines stool samples, all with an impossibly sunny disposition. When Charlie meets Viola, they get along swimmingly — that is, until Kevin decides to get on his knee in front of both of them (um, gross) and ask for Charlie’s hand in marriage.

For the remainder of the movie, chaos is wreaked in a variety of unbelievable ways, with Charlie and Viola each slapping, punching and drugging the other into oblivion, without ever acknowledging what the hell their problem is. Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher’s showdown in Guess Who may not have been brilliant, but it worked because the comedy stemmed from the characters’ uneasiness with each other based on race, class and general outlook on life. Monster-in-Law, on the other hand, merely pleads insanity: Only a crazy woman wouldn’t love Charlie. With the exception of one throwaway “Latina” reference, there’s no mention of ethnicity; Lopez acts as virginal and Wonder-Bread Caucasian as Doris Day in her prime. And J-Lo’s oft-repeated segment on VH1’s The Fabulous Life contrasts hilariously with the movie’s attempt to turn her into a Dharma and Greg-style bohemian goddess who can’t pay the rent.

As for Fonda, she’s never been adept at comedy — remember how she mugged for the camera in 9 to 5? — but it’s nice to see her throw herself into a role, even one as thankless as this. Armed with an expansive cackle and a willingness to have mascara streaming down her face for half the film, it’s obvious that she’s game for whatever sub-I Love Lucy antics the script throws her way. But the only time she hits her stride is when she shares the screen with the perennial scene-stealer Wanda Sykes, playing the thankless role of wisecracking assistant Ruby. Come to think of it, the Oscar-winning anti-war activist could learn a thing or two from Sykes, the woman who managed to survive both Down to Earth and Pootie Tang. Now that’s an actress who can truly turn water into wine.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].