BetteBack March 3, 2000: REVIEW; ‘DROWNING’ DEEP IN LAUGHS

Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
March 3, 2000

Bette Midler shades

Proving you don’t necessarily need to whack somebody over the head with zaniness to get them giggling, the makers of “Drowning Mona” get a lot of mileage out of elements that its characters don’t acknowledge. Consider the vanity plates on the Yugos driven by every character in the town of Verplanck, N.Y.; or the “As Seen on TV” sign above the local mortician’s shingle. Wacky stuff of that ilk is constantly flitting across the screen and disappearing before we’re even aware we’ve been goosed.

Make no mistake, this screwy whodunit starring Danny DeVito and co- produced by his Jersey films doesn’t exactly get by on nuances. Writer Peter Steinfeld milks a running gag about a character having one hand – the local cops are practically obsessed with it. And exactly how subtle can you be depicting a town floozy (played with seen-it-all blowziness by Jamie Lee Curtis) who totes a Wheel of Fortune board game to her motel room trysts? (“I let you buy a vowel. Then you wanted a free spin!”)

Forced? Occasionally. Offbeat? Definitely. Funny? Oh yeah.

Sort of a trailer-trash “Ruthless People,” “Drowning Mona” has Bette Midler at her shrewiest, DeVito doing Columbo, and any number of brain-challenged Verplanckians acting like they’ve spent the past 10 years sniffing model airplane glue in a Mayberry watering hole. Nobody’s a great character study, but they’re sure a kick to watch.

The movie begins with much-hated Mona Dearly (Midler) driving a sabotaged Yugo off a cliff into the lake, thereby forcing the town’s Broadway show tune-loving sheriff Wyatt Rash (DeVito) to do some actual detective work. The suspects include Mona’s philandering husband Phil (William Fichtner), her son Jeff (Marcus Thomas) and possibly even Phil’s mistress Rona (Curtis).

Also under suspicion is Bobby Calzone (a blond-mopped Casey Affleck), a sweet but dim-witted type who operates JB landscaping with Jeff. Bobby is someone the sheriff would rather not have to arrest, since the kid’s about to marry Wyatt’s daughter, Ellen (Neve Campbell). Through flashbacks, dear old Mona gets plenty of opportunity to show why she richly deserves to sleep with the fishes.

Wyatt’s work isn’t all that challenging, since every citizen seems to live within a 10-mile radius, and, except for Bobby, nobody in Verplanck seems to work much. They’re too busy moteling, boozing, fishing or composing musical odes to Mona’s death. Wyatt’s deputies are far more interested in finding out what really caused Jeff to lose his hand than in determining who took Mona down.

Director Nick Gomez, who has directed episodes of “Oz” and “The Sopranos” for HBO, demonstrates a deftness at comedy both broad and deadpan. Certainly we’re expected to laugh at these upstate yokels, but their foibles resonate as well. (As a favor, Bobby asks his brother to perform a “brotherly de-boning” for the wedding dinner.) Steinfeld’s script zings one-liners pretty much from start to finish. Not all of them hit, but those that do are hilarious.

Since her turn in “Ruthless People,” Bette Midler has turned playing a harpy into an art form; Mona’s a cakewalk for her. DeVito, who might otherwise have been cast as Phil, plays it straight and calm here, although Sheriff Wyatt’s a bit of an oddball himself. Nearly walking off with the movie in a great cameo is “Saturday Night Live’s” Will Farrell (a dead ringer for Chevy Chase) as Cubby the mortician.

And just in case anybody wants to visit Verplanck – a real place, by the way, population less than 4,000 – its on-screen version is played primarily by Sierra Madre, a little town east of Pasadena which, I would wager, does not have a single Yugo in its entire city limits.


–The film: “Drowning Mona” (PG-13, language, some sexual material).

–The stars: Danny DeVito, Bette Midler, Neve Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis.

–Behind the scenes: Directed by Nick Gomez. Screenplay by Peter Steinfeld. Released by Destination Films.

–Running time: One hour, 31 minutes.

–Our rating: Three and one half stars.

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