Posted: 03/06/2000


Drowning Mona


by Jon Bastian

An incredible cast and some well-drawn characters still don’t make a splash as Mona ultimately sinks.

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Drowning Mona is a lot like watching an episode of Wheel of Fortune, if you’re a fan.You may root and cheer and laugh while the game is on, but half an hour later, you won’t remember the solution to the big money puzzle. It’s a shame, because the film is full of great actors playing incredibly well defined and minutely observed characters. By the final credits, though, the plot twists and character bits fall a few turns short of being satisfying.

First, a few words on what Drowning Mona is not, ad campaigns to the contrary. It is not a Bette Midler star vehicle. In fact, despite Ms. M. playing the titular drownee, she isn’t in the film nearly enough. In the far too few scenes in which we see her play a shrill, nasty, zaftig, white trash harridan, she steals the show — and it’s no stretch at all to imagine why anyone (or everyone) would want to kill her — which brings me to the second point. Much is made in the film’s advertising that the entire population of the small town of Verplanck, New York, wants to Mona dead. In reality, there are far too few suspects, and that is the main point on which the movie falls down. The solution to the mystery is rather obvious, despite a big fat red herring planted about midway, and so the resolution feels unfulfilling. It’s kind of like going to Verplanck’s only diner expecting the “heart attack special” and only getting the vegetarian plate.

Briefly, Mona concerns events that happen in a tiny village near the Hudson River immediately after Mona (Midler) drives her Yugo into the water and (surprise) drowns. The town’s police chief, Wyatt Rash (Danny DeVito) starts out investigating an accident, but quickly learns that there was nothing accidental about it. The suspects begin to pile up, but there are never enough of them. Was it Mona’s son’s business partner, Bobby Calzone (Casey Affleck), tired of being called an ass-kisser by the family? Was it Mona’s abused husband, Phil (William Fichtner), finally ready to make a new life with his waitress squeeze, Rona (Jamie Lee Curtis)? Or was it Mona’s one-handed, too-dumb-to-deserve-oxygen son, Jeff (Marcus Thomas), who has more than a handful of reasons to hate her? To be fair, the last person is never really a suspect despite attempts to cast guilt on him, and it’s obvious from the get-go that he couldn’t figure out how to kill someone even if he wanted to. The film isn’t a whodunit, nor is it a “who didn’t do it” as the filmmakers would have it. Ultimately, Drowning Mona is a collection of very interesting characters who feel very real but don’t have much of a story in which to interact.

It’s a shame, because I really liked these people. Every character, from DeVito and Affleck on down to minor players (like the town mortician and the homeless fisherman) felt fully developed, like they had a life beyond the screen. The second anyone appeared the first time, we knew volumes about them just from the little details. Also, you’ve got to love any town where almost every single vehicle in sight is a Yugo. There’s a funny reason for this, but I won’t give it away here.

Casey Affleck shows great promise in his role as an honest young gardener trying to do the right thing, and there’s at least one scene where he gets to show a little range beyond playing the quiet nice guy. There are hints of a great talent here, though, as Affleck balances nice guy self-deprecating deference with a touch of the anger that must burble under the surface of a guy who has always been too nice. It won’t be long before people are referring to Ben as Casey’s brother, instead of vice versa.

DeVito is uncharacteristically subdued as the fatherly police chief who’s really into show tunes. Incidentally, DeVito executive produced here, as he did Man in the Moon. These two films don’t say much about his ability to pick or fine tune scripts. Neve Campbell as Ellen, Affleck’s fiancĂ©e and DeVito’s daughter, provides a nice, stable presence between the two men in her life until a great scene near the end where she absolutely loses it. Midler not only chews the scenery in her few appearances, she swallows it, digests it, then has a really satisfying dump and wipes up after. This is meant as the highest compliment.

In supporting roles, Fichtner is nicely cast against type. He has the look of a TV movie-of-the-week white trash psycho, but his character is actually a total milquetoast, utterly whipped by not one, but two women. Kathleen Wilhoite is memorable as the butch town mechanic (specializing in Yugos) who knows more about cars than anyone else around. Affleck’s big brother, a man who never learned the rule “a bartender shouldn’t drink,” is played by, I think, Raymond O’Connor. (Memo to the producers, Dimension Films: have the respect to include all your cast on your website, and not just the main players, especially when the supporting cast is so damn good.) Jamie Lee Curtis is, as always, fabulous as Rona, the waitress who’s probably also town slut. Curtis throws herself into the role completely, going so far as to frump out with what had to be some artificial ass padding and subjecting herself to a really limp looking, badly dyed mullet. Finally, Will Ferrell pops up in a cameo as the aforementioned very strange mortician with more than a few odd kinks.

To their credit, much is said about these people by not being said, and there’s a lot of juice in the information that passes without notice. We never know why it’s a huge compliment to Curtis that she’s been invited to Affleck and Campbell’s wedding, but we can guess. Also, the fact that Affleck’s big brother is charging to cater the wedding speaks volumes, but is never belabored. At least this restraint keeps the film interesting.

Still, I can only wonder what John Waters might have done with these people. Thecharacters really deserved a more demented touch, and there should have been an ever increasing mania as DeVito’s investigation zeroed in on the killer. It also felt like some of the big names in small parts originally had more screen time but that the movie was whittled down to ninety-one minutes for the mini-mall crowd.

Too bad. Sometimes, more is more, and this was one case where I wish there had been more — more Midler, more plot, more convolutions before the payoff. Without that, we’re left with a perfectly acceptable though not overly impressive fluff of a comedy. Granted, moments are hilarious, but I wouldn’t rate this one worth more than a “rent it on video” evening, or perhaps a matinee if the film you came to see is sold out.

Midler and DeVito have worked together twice before, in 1995’s Get Shorty and in 1986’s Ruthless People. Well, one out of three ain’t bad. Let’s hope that next time they work together, they make it two out of four. And here’s hoping that Casey Affleck soon gets his hands on some material that will better showcase his not inconsequential talent.

Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles. He is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.

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