Jennifer Lopez may get top billing in Monster-in-Law, but this is not really her movie. It belongs instead to two other divas: the still-game and still-gorgeous Jane Fonda, making her first film in 15 years, and the always-sassy Wanda Sykes, in the Thelma Ritter role as Fonda's wisecracking sidekick.

As the title implies, Fonda plays the prospective mother-in-law from hell, here named Viola, whose almost too-perfect son, Kevin (handsome Michael Vartan in a thankless role), falls in love with a girl named Charlie (Lopez), whom he meets on the beach in Venice, California. Charlie-real name Charlotte-is a part-time dog walker, part-time temp in a doctor's office, part-time caterer and part-time aspiring designer. Cute. She also lives in a cute Southern California apartment next door to her gay buddy Remy (Adam Scott) and best friend Morgan (Annie Parisse), whose entire lives seem focused on what happens to her, Charlie.

Shortly after Charlie meets Kevin, we meet Viola and her personal assistant Ruby (Sykes). It is here that Monster-in-Law shifts into high gear. Viola is a famous and powerful TV news anchor of a certain age, who is about to be replaced by a much younger, blonder and presumably dumber correspondent. Viola hears this jolting news just before she goes on air to interview the most bimbo-esque of young blondes, a pop star who wears a rather familiar costume consisting of hunks of white leather fringe which hide her neck and nether-parts but expose her navel. When this young hottie says she just loves old movies-like Grease and Free Willy-Viola begins to lose it. Then, asked about her feelings concerning Roe vs. Wade, the bimbo replies, "Oh, I don't support professional boxing." At this, Viola leaps up and-on live national TV-lunges for that fringe-covered throat.

When Viola is released from the loony bin a few months later, she seems to be her old crusty-but-benign self. Until, that is, her son Kevin brings his new girlfriend to lunch. Her son means everything to Viola-especially now that she's lost her anchor job-and she's not going to let him marry a mere "temp," as she introduces Charlie to her A-list friends. The diva decides to get down and dirty.

It's not a fair fight, no matter what the Monster-in-Law script intended. Jennifer Lopez is sweet and smart, her acting has a certain spontaneity to it, and she's very pretty-as well as shapely. But in this casting match-up, Lopez is totally outclassed. Comedy is all in the timing, Jen, and it has to come naturally-as it does with Fonda and Sykes. When the been-everywhere-done-everything Viola talks about having dinner with "the Sultan of Brunei, Maureen Dowd, Carrie Fisher and Snoop Dogg," Fonda has the panache to make you believe it-and make you laugh. The script's best one-liners go to Sykes, who's absolutely fabulous as Viola's bossy, brook-no-nonsense foil. (Note to the Britney Spears generation: Thelma Ritter always played a wisecracking sidekick.) A stand-up comedian, Sykes is noted for her improvisations, and one has to wonder if some of the best bits in the film are actually her own. If not, she certainly makes them sound that way.

Monster-in-Law was obviously conceived as a Saturday night date movie for Lopez fans. But it may do just as well, if not better, in a Wednesday matinee run for the boomer-and-older crowd, who'll be eager to see if Barbarella can still strut her stuff. Indeed, she can-and does.
-Shirley Sealy