Knight at the Movies ARCHIVES
A Double Feature of Chick Flicks:
Monster-in-Law-Ladies in Lavender
5-13-05 Knight at the Movies column
By Richard Knight, Jr.
Is it Chick Flick Week in Chicago or did I miss a meeting? In this corner we have JLo and Jane Fonda in the big
budget, studio film Monster-in-Law while in this corner Judi Dench and Maggie Smith are in the independent,
smaller scaled Ladies in Lavender. Lucky for us fans of the old fashioned women’s picture, they are both supreme
examples of their type. And better yet, the JLo-JFo picture is gay as a goose.
Is anyone in the Free World NOT aware that Jane Fonda is back? I hope her publicist is on the receiving end of a
nice big, fat check for the spectacular job he or she has done for Fonda who is almost as pervasive as Michael
Jackson these days. Aside from the usual Bible-sized memoir to tout, Fonda has also snatched up one of the
largest, showiest roles for an actress of a, shall we say, mature age since Shirley MacLaine’s Aurora Greenway in
Terms of Endearment. This is not to elevate Fonda’s work with MacLaine’s – far from it – but she brings
enormous presence to her tinsel thin character and easily TKO’s Monster-in-Law’s surreptitious star, Jennifer
Lopez once again plays her standard romantic comedy role – that of the beautiful but so lonely she doesn’t know it
heroine. She wears lots of bright prints and bounces around the “fun” clutter of her apartment in pigtails glancing
wistfully at a photograph of herself with her dead father. No man, of course, has been able to match up to daddy
but then one day on the beach, in slo-mo Chariots of Fire style, hunky, hairy Kevin (Michael Vartan) jogs into her
life. Not only is Kevin handsome, bright and sensitive, he’s a wealthy doctor and naturally, another WASP for
JLo's trophy case (right next to previous co-stars Matthew McConaughey and Ralph Fiennes).
The Dilemma arrives in the form of Fonda as Kevin’s mother. Divorcé Viola Fields, a character obviously based on
Barbara Walters, has just been tossed out by her network for a much, much younger version of herself and after a
teeny tiny breakdown has confided to her assistant, Ruby (Wanda Sykes in an updating of the wisecracking Eve
Arden/Thelma Ritter role) that now she’s ready to spend more time with her only child. But Michael jump starts
the meeting of the two women by proposing to JLo and now it’s time for the games to begin.
From that point out it’s pretty much a back and forth game of one upmanship, female style. Fonda ends up the
winner by a draw, due to her star power and her Crawford-like way of sinking her teeth into the role though she
doesn’t really have much feel for comedy (never did) while Lopez’s steely determination eventually seeps through
the perky facade (the girl can’t help it). Vartan gracefully steps to the side while Sykes gets cheap laughs and
easily walks away with every scene she’s in. Once again, we have a minority character muttering under their
breath about stupid, crazy, ignunt-ass white folks. But the old formula is just as funny now as it was 60 years ago
when Rochester did it in support of Jack Benny.
Slightly newer are all the trés gay and lesbian references and of course the gay best friend from which no romantic
comedy heroine should ever be without (they mirror the fag hags of queer cinema’s male comedies). Out director
Robert Luketic is specializing in these audience pleasing comedies (Legally Blonde and Win a Date with Tad
Hamilton are on his resume) and is certainly responsible for loading them up with queer content.
Ironically, this connect-the-dots comedy is probably going to bring Lopez a big hit after a long dry spell but it’s JFo
that audiences are going to remember and to be honest, putting these two together onscreen was never exactly
what you would call a fair acting fight.
There’s also no contest between Judi Dench and Maggie Smith in Ladies in Lavender. Not surprisingly, both
leave indelible impressions. I’m sure both actresses sized up their parts, Crawford and Davis, Baby Jane Style,
before the cameras turned, and have pitched their performances in Ladies in Lavender appropriately. First time
director Charles Dance (the sexy British actor from White Mischief and Alien 3) politely balances the story of two
sisters fussing over their mysterious houseguest who has washed ashore near their Cornish seaside cottage in the
1930’s. Ursula (Dench) is immediately smitten by the comely, musically inclined Andrea (Daniel Brühl) and
dreams of making love with the German beauty on the beach. Janet (Smith) is the cautious scold but she, too, can’
t resist when Andrea picks up the violin and sweet classical music pours out.
For both the ladies – and the rest of the curious villagers, including Dorcas their housekeeper (the lesbian actor
Miriam Margoyles) – the foreign Andrea is a curiosity and a breath of fresh air in their tiny, enclosed hamlet. All is
momentary contentment and everyone falls under the spell of Andrea’s exquisite violin playing. Urusula has
successfully shooed off all real competition to that point (and her fantasy becomes more insistent) but the
beautiful, cunning Olga (Natascha McElhone) is too alluring – and has serious musical connections to boot – and
soon Andrea is sneaking off to her place. Heartbreak follows. Dench achingly convinces that unrequited love at
any age is hell while Smith underplays what is essentially a supporting role.
Dance’s film brings to mind any number of domestic dramas in which small triumphs and tragedies happen amidst
the backdrop of seasonal changes. In particular, the delicacy of Babette’s Feast and the showy acting theatrics of
Lillian Gish and Bette Davis in The Whales of August. This intricate, lace doily of a film has much to recommend it
– not the least of which are both the classical violin compositions and the film score by Nigel Hess – both
breathtakingly played by Joshua Bell that takes in everyone within earshot – this reviewer included.
Mother Knows Best Or Does She?