Monster-in-Law, Kings and Queen, and Mysterious Skin.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
May 13 2005 8:19 AM

Doggy Style

Jet Li is a sweetie monster in Unleashed, and we're still fonda Fonda in Monster-in-Law.

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Faced with watching her father die, the widowed Nora decides to find a place to stick her 11-year-old, Elias (Valentin Lelong)—and then, in one of those inexplicable psychological turns, a place to put him permanently. Elias doesn't like the (rich) man she's marrying: Maybe he should live with her last lover, Ismaël, whom Elias adored. Played by Desplechin regular (and alter ego?) Mathieu Amalric, Ismaël is the movie's second protagonist. In his first scene, two smiling men in white haul him from his chaotic apartment to a mental hospital. A respected violist, he's buffoonish, grandiose, and unhinged—a blurter of unpleasant truths and even more unpleasant (misogynistic) delusions. But he's hugely likable and adorable—a rumpled cuddlebug.

Now we watch the protagonists struggle: Nora to come to terms with her father's dying; and the hospitalized Ismaël to center himself, despite a lawyer (Hippolyte Girardot) who shows up to steal drugs from the pharmacy, a nurse therapist who flirts with him madly, and a suicidal patient (Magali Woch) who thinks he's her soul mate. Ismaël has two therapists, a hospital one played by the still stunningly beautiful Catherine Deneuve, the other an immense French-African woman played by Elsa Wolliaston, with whom he grapples with the meaning of existence.

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Nora and Ismaël try to use myths (like Leda and the swan) to account for their feelings, but we learn, to our shock, that they haven't begun to frame their lives properly. The final act of Kings and Queen contains a series of brutally frank exchanges—between Ismaël and his former musical partner, between Nora and her father (via his last diary entry), and between Ismaël and the boy Elias—that hit us like an anvil. We made the mistake of buying into the characters' own interpretations of themselves—but they knew nothing! For all their psychoanalytic myth-mongering, their views of their places in the world have always been clouded by selfishness.

I don't think I've fully penetrated the mysteries of Kings and Queen, which is too complex and contradictory to reduce. But at every turn the movie is messily alive. Most films give us signposts: They signal what we're going to see before we see it, in ways we often don't even register. But Desplechin and his actors are nervy, glancing, and intuitive: They keep us one step behind, racing to catch up and make psychological sense of it all. The director varies tones, rhythms, and visual styles. He serves up dreams, ghostly visions, horrifying flashbacks, scenes set against theatrical backdrops with melodramatic music, and opening and closing snatches of the song "Moon River"—which poses the question: Is Nora a modern Leda, or a modern Holly Golightly?

It's possible that Desplechin and I part company at the end. He seems to want us to see Nora as emotionally stunted and Ismaël as emotionally liberated, but I found both to be self-centered and semidelusional. I didn't like Ismaël's parting words with Elias, which are meant to stun us with their wisdom even as they break our hearts. In any case, Kings and Queen winds up with Nora's son happily assembling a collage featuring the heads of all the figures in his life. He's beginning to form a more complex view of the world: Perhaps this is the beginning of an artistic vision. The best thing about this marvelous movie is that it inspires us to rearrange our own emotional jigsaw puzzles, too... 5:20 P.T.

Feel the burn 
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Feel the burn

The comedy Monster-in-Law (Universal) is a depressing comeback for Jane Fonda, but it's still nice to see her in movies again, and in something that isn't dripping with self-actualizing virtue like her last projects. Maybe the next one will be better. At 68, she is amazingly fit, with more evident bone structure than in her curvy, baby-fatted youth and, befitting her overcontrolled character, straighter posture than ever. But she hasn't been on the big screen in 14 years, and so—in movie time—she appears to have aged overnight. I still see her with that hot, shag-cut dark hair as she incinerates pasty Donald Sutherland with a glare: "What's your bag, Klute?" My Bree Daniels, my adolescence …

Anyway, Fonda plays Viola Fields, a rich and powerful news anchor who gets a double whammy: She has been replaced at her station by a bubbly blonde about four decades younger; and her precious son, Kevin (Michael Vartan), has announced he's going to marry a working-class (but squeaky-clean) Latina woman named Charlotte "Charlie" Cantolini (Jennifer Lopez). Well, not if Viola has anything to do with it!

The film, directed by Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde), is a slapstick chick flick that flirts with a real theme before degenerating into the tale of two women playing sadistic tricks on each other. It's not the slapstick that's the problem. Contrary to its reputation, physical comedy can deepen a film's psychology. Jane's dad Henry's pratfalls in The Lady Eve are the perfect correlative for his psychological upheaval, and Blake Edwards and Dudley Moore did something delightful in the first few scenes of 10: They turned a man's 40th birthday into a harbinger of his ultimate defeat at the hands of time and gravity. (Too bad the rest of the film is so god-awful.) But Monster-in-Law's climactic gags are subtext-free and easy. They make you laugh, but mainly because you don't expect a film with Fonda and Lopez to sink to that pie-in-the-face level.

Women whose struggle to stay in control causes them to lose control are terrific subjects for the hypercontrolled workout queen. And Viola is potentially a good fit: the kind of egotistical ogre that Fonda claims—in her autobiography, My Life So Far (which has its juicy passages, even if it's clearly the product of so very much therapy)—she never had the desire (or the confidence) to be. But if Fonda was once an excellent comic actress, she was never an especially broad one. Viola is a Candice Bergen role: out of Fonda's range even if she weren't so rusty. And it doesn't help that she has been paired with a black domestic sidekick (Wanda Sykes) of the sassy, eye-rolling variety. What an awful part for Sykes. I thought the '70s and '80s had elevated Fonda's consciousness above that.

This is Fonda's project, co-produced by her pal Paula Weinstein. But the multiplex draw is Lopez. Her Charlie wears pigtails and Laura Ashleyish dresses, wags her head from side to side, and wears the dreamy expression of Judy Garland singing about happy little bluebirds flying beyond the rainbow. Her smile lights up the room, and she doesn't walk when she can skip. She's just remarkable. Watching Jennifer Lopez as a lilting ingénue and Jane Fonda as a roaring, dragon-lady diva, I dreamed of a film in which the roles were, quite properly, reversed. That's my bag... 3:40 P.T.


In Mysterious Skin (Tartan Films), the director/writer Greg Araki travels deep into the heads of child sexual abuse victims—into their fantasies, dreams, and mystical visions. The two male protagonists are severely damaged, but they had different kinds of traumas, and they cope, as young men, in vastly different ways. One, Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), hustles for money; the other, Brian (Brady Corbet), retains only vague images of colossal flying saucers and (maybe) alien medical experiments, his flashbacks accompanied by streams of blood from his nose. The movie has some heavy-handed strokes (in more ways than one), but Araki is trying to work from the inside out; and he captures feelings about sexual exploitation that I've never seen on-screen—not all of them negative.

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