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Fonda's 'Monster' Comeback

Jane Fonda | Debbie Rowe | Rob Thomas | Rufus Thomas

Fonda's Film Comeback Scores High

Jane Fonda hasn't made a movie since 1992, so her comeback next week in "Monster-in-Law" is probably more crucial than she'd like to admit.

It's not like she's taken a small part or supporting role and tip-toed back into film. The two-time Oscar winner — for "Klute" and "Coming Home" — and member of Hollywood royalty is the star of this Robert Luketic-directed comedy.

If it's no good, then Fonda is sure to retreat to charity work in Atlanta.

And the good news, really the great news, is: Fonda is a comic tour de force in "Monster-in-Law." She also looks like a million bucks — that workout thing was worth it!

That's not to say the movie is a comedy classic; it's surely not. But it's definitely going to be a massive commercial hit.

And Fonda — whose comic turns in "9 to 5," "Fun With Dick and Jane" and even "Barefoot in the Park" were always underrated — vaults back into the running as one of our top, top actresses.

"Monster-in-Law" is obviously the distaff version of "Meet the Parents" — and I mean obviously. Jane plays the Robert De Niro part as an obsessed parent who will not accept her child's fiancée, played by Jennifer Lopez in the Ben Stiller role.

It's not very original in concept, but in execution there's enough mother-daughter stuff that the very desirable female demographic should come swooning in, dollars in hand.

Fonda's character is a very wealthy, successful Oprah/Sally Jessy Raphael type who gets canned from her talk show for a younger replacement. This isn't entirely plausible, but all right, such is the conceit.

At the same time, her handsome, unmarried doctor son (Michael Vartan) is bringing home his girlfriend (Lopez). She's from the wrong side of the tracks, supports herself with a variety of odd jobs and happens to be incredibly beautiful.

Of course, Jane does not approve. "My son is marrying a temp!" she cries, and off we go.

Lopez works like a dog to keep up with Fonda, and I give her credit for trying. But much of the time she looks exhausted, and you can only imagine she wants to just sit down and say, "Enough. I can't keep up."

This time, more so than in most of her attempts at romantic comedy, Lopez is really out of her league. Someday, she will land a character befitting her.

"Monster-in-Law" is helped a lot by good supporting actors, though.

Annie Parisse, who jumped from "As the World Turns" to "Law and Order," is paired nicely with Adam Scott (Howard Hughes' publicist in "The Aviator") as Lopez's supportive friends. They do a lot to raise the stock level of their one-dimensional characters into something entertaining.

And Wanda Sykes is so entertaining as Fonda's character's assistant that I'm told the producers are thinking of a sequel based around just the two women. It's a great idea.

The question now for Fonda is what to do next. I hope she'll turn to some really accomplished writers and directors, and make a big Oscar movie. She is capable of anything. Those seven Academy Award nominations were for merit and skill, not given out of luck.

With "Monster-in-Law," she returns in a hit that can re-establish her rapport with the movie audience on a broad scale. The next step is to take back her title as America's finest actress. I think she'll do it.

Debbie Rowe Classes Up the Trial

As I predicted yesterday, Debbie Rowe was not the blockbuster witness for the prosecution in the Michael Jackson trial. Rowe did just as I said she would: She comported herself with dignity and told the truth.

She said she did not read from a script in her February 2003 television interview supporting Jackson. She told the court that she answered all the questions posed to her with her usual spontaneity and honesty.

It was another decisive moment in this trial for the defense, and they haven't even begun to present their own case.

Now that Rowe has made her appearance, though, do we think Jackson will show his appreciation?

She could have easily lied, or at least colored her testimony to make him look bad. She had every reason to do so if she wanted revenge.

It has been years since Jackson has let her see the two children she gave birth to, even though I'm told he may have no biological connection to them. He has even taught them to think they have no mother. Jackson has done all this to a woman who was his friend for several years before their marriage, and agreed to give him children as a gift.

Forget that she was paid millions in exchange. Rowe is a human being, even if Jackson doesn't think of her that way. She proved it yesterday.

Isn't it time Jackson showed her the same respect she's shown him?

In their custody-alimony case, long running in Los Angeles family court, Jackson continues to send in a succession of attorneys with new and daunting motions all aimed at one thing: to deny Rowe the right ever to see her children again.

That doesn't sound like the mark of a great humanitarian and supporter of children. And with Jackson, I'm told, the hypocrisy doesn't end there.

Rob Thomas Is a Rock Star

It's "something to be" a member of a hot rock group like Matchbox Twenty.

I remember Sting right after he left the Police. He played a solo show at the old Ritz (now Webster Hall) on East 11th St. in NYC so fans could hear his new music.

The place was packed and there was electricity in the air. That was the night Sting went from being a rock star to a transcendent and permanent cultural icon.

Last night Rob Thomas did just the same thing. He played a show at Irving Plaza in Manhattan that was so good it pushed him from "leader of rock group" to a big, big deal.

Not only was the joint filled from stem to stern, but the audience knew all the songs and sang along. They were ebullient, too, as Thomas performed his group's hits, his new single "Lonely No More" and a few inspired covers such as the Commodores' "Easy" and Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine."

A jazzy, slowed down version of "Smooth," the hit Thomas had with Santana, was so gorgeous it could probably be a hit again, à la Eric Clapton's unplugged version of "Layla."

Maybe Rob Thomas is the first rock star to build a career on likeability. You know he's a good guy, extremely clean-cut, happily married to a beautiful woman. It's the 2000s now, so there will be no wrecked hotel rooms or tales of drug-tinged blood being changed in Switzerland.

I caught Foreigner's Mick Jones, a sort of old-school nice guy, rocking out behind the sound station last night. He's given Thomas a little advice as his career has advanced. It shows. Like Jones, Rob Thomas looks destined for a long, successful career in the rock stratosphere.

Rufus Returns, Actors Travel

The late, great Rufus Thomas shines on his last album, released this week. "Just Because I'm Leavin'" is on Segue Records, available through Amazon and other Internet sources.

Thomas was the greatest R&B star Memphis ever produced. His children — pop star Carla, famed musician Marvell, and Vaneese, New York's most sought-after backup singer — are planning an October concert tribute in Memphis. In the meantime, get the new CD. It's a joy.

New York is indie-movie town this week. On Saturday, Johnny Williams' "Tan Lines" will be screened at the Village East Cinema. The British road trip movie stars fetching Swedish supermodel Frida Show in her English-language feature-film debut.

And the Creative Coalition is taking a contingent to Washington on Saturday for the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner.

Prior to the dinner, Coalition director Robin Bronk is hosting a hot-ticket cocktail party with the ever-popular Joe Pantoliano, plus Dennis Hopper, Ron Silver, "The West Wing's" Richard Schiff, Jon Cryer and Giancarlo Esposito.

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