COMEDY
Monster-in-Law
Jennifer Lopez, Jane Fonda, Michael Vartan

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Look, look. See Jane meet Jennifer. See Jane steam. See Jane stew. See Jane scheme. Bad, Jane, bad. But funny, Jane, funny.

There's nothing complicated about Monster-in-Law, a movie that will have you chuckling even as you recognize its total lack of originality, subtlety or honest feeling. The straight-forward plot: Adorable surgeon (Vartan) introduces fiancée (Lopez) to possessive mom (Fonda, in a welcome return to the big screen after a 15-year absence). Mom goes ballistic, attempting ceaselessly to sabotage the prospective bride.

Monster's paltry primary appeal lies in the perverse, time-honored tradition of seeing two strong female characters go at each other with manicured nails bared—think Dynasty's Krystle and Alexis minus the shoulder pads. Here, there's the added allure of having Fonda, an icon of yesteryear, face off against one of today's hype-heaviest stars. Fonda easily wins the acting duel, in part because she has more natural talent, but mostly because she commits wholeheartedly to the material, baring her teeth ferociously and hissing while Lopez pouts prettily and gives only the daintiest of snarls. Dishy Vartan, required to do little more than gaze adoringly at Lopez and be charming, performs both tasks with élan. And three cheers for Wanda Sykes, who as Fonda's put-upon assistant proves a formidable scene-stealer. (PG-13)

COMEDY
Kicking & Screaming
Will Ferrell, Robert Duvall

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Ferrell is having a couple of off months. In Melinda and Melinda, his performance wasn't much more than an irritating imitation of director Woody Allen's syntax. Now he's up against Robert Duvall, and he's thoroughly outmatched. In Kicking, a family film that plays like Bend It Like Beckham acted out by a man in a midlife crisis, Ferrell is a soccer dad who has spent his life falling short of the demands of his soccer dad (Duvall). The old man is a merry bully who coaches the local kids' team and doesn't blink at trading Ferrell's boy, his own grandson, to a team of adorable little losers. Ferrell decides to coach the nerds—and starts to win—but in the process becomes even worse than his father. Ferrell offers escalating farcical hysteria (it's like watching an allegory about the rise of a minor-league fascist), while Duvall, even though he plays a monster, is always winningly human. He cackles with malicious glee and puffs out his chest and bellows, "Be forewarned, muchachol" You root for him instead of Ferrell. That can't be right. Oh well. Maybe Ferrell can break his slump with Bewitched in June. (PG)

ACTION
Unleashed
Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins

Raggedy, dirt-smeared and undersized, Danny (Li) wears a metal collar and lurks passively on the sidelines as his boss, a burly gangster (Hoskins), demands payment from a client. When the client balks, the crime boss unfastens the smaller man's collar and barks, "Get 'em!" Danny springs into action, beating to a bloody pulp the client and at least a dozen henchmen. "Good boy," the gangster says afterward, patting an expressionless Danny the way one would a dog and reattaching his collar.

Thus begins Unleashed, a dandy action drama that showcases both Li's extraordinary martial arts prowess and his growing acting skills. In between bone-crushing fight scenes, the movie concentrates on showing its abused hero blooming emotionally following his escape from his cruel master. He is taken in by a kindly blind piano tuner (Freeman, solid as ever) and his teenage stepdaughter (Kerry Condon); the two offer Danny shelter and nurturing. As written by Luc Besson (The Professional) and directed by Louis Leterrier (The Transporter), the film occasionally veers dangerously close to sentimental, but just when it threatens to get too goopy, Hoskins shows up again, bellowing and bristling, and Li swings into mesmerizing action. (R)

  • Contributors:
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Tom Gliatto,
  • Jason Lynch,
  • Isoul H. Harris.