The Boston Globe (Boston, MA)
March 3, 2000 | Jay Carr, Globe Staff

Drowning Mona” is a rudely funny comedy of lowlifes in a Hudson Valley town that immediately proclaims its collective loserdom when a title card flashes onscreen at the start and tells us that tiny, exhausted Verplanck, N.Y., was a test market for Yugos, which the locals snapped up at giveaway prices. The recurring sight of everybody tooling around in those boxy little tin cans on wheels, including the police, lends a surreal tinge to a film that suggests a cross between “Throw Momma From the Train” and “Murder on the Orient Express.” Bette Midler‘s belligerent harridan named Mona is indeed drowned early on when the brakes on her bright yellow Yugo stop working and she’s plunged off a cliff and into the Hudson. Despite all those Yugo jokes, it was not a manufacturing defect.

Nobody is sorry to see Mona go, including her husband and grown son. As we see in flashbacks, she was such bad news to so many people that Danny DeVito‘s police chief, the only calm, sane person in town, is faced with the fact that virtually everybody is a suspect in what can enthusiastically be described as foul play. The fun comes from watching the deftly juggled ensemble expand the meaning of foul play from mere murder to the horrific banality of their daily routines and escapades, sexual and otherwise. A lot involves landscaping, into which Mona’s son, a brutish lout named Jeph, and his partner, a sweet, dimwitted male bimbo named Bobby Calzone, introduce surprising amounts of gruesomeness. That Bobby is the brains of the outfit probably says it all.

“Drowning Mona” is executed on a pretty broad level, but if characterization is slighted, the ensemble is so rich, with such depth, that every few minutes another juicy turn keeps coming our way to divert us. It’s centered on DeVito’s methodical cop, who’s personally involved in the case because he’s the father of the fiancee of one of the suspect landscapers. Casey Affleck makes a strong impression as the weak pretty boy, Bobby, and Neve Campbell strides confidently into comic territory at his side, although one of her funniest scenes occurs when she’s introduced to an alternate reality by Kathleen Wilhoite’s garage mechanic, whose service station sensibly bears a sign that reads: “We specialize in Yugos.” The town’s signage, of which this is hardly the only droll example, reflects some heads-up production design.

Newcomer Marcus Thomas makes a favorable impression as Bobby’s Neanderthal partner, but then one of the pleasures of “Drowning Mona” is the way it gives everybody a chance to take a few swings, and the way most connect. Jamie Lee Curtis is one of the pluses as a hard-bitten waitress unfussy about her bed partners, Mark Pellegrino shines as Bobby’s clunky but loyal older brother, and I wish a few more of the actors had tried to match the wacko gleam in the eye of the town undertaker, played by Will Ferrell.

“Drowning Mona” doesn’t finish as strongly as it begins. It opts for convenient resolution rather than ongoing crude vigor, dissipating the initial impact of Peter Steinfeld‘s cheekily misanthropic script. On the other hand, it marks a welcome return to film for director Nick Gomez, after a few years of TV work. Obviously, he has learned to juggle large casts and lots of traffic. His gritty “Laws of Gravity,” “New Jersey Drive,” and “Illtown” were impressive. “Drowning Mona” proves he has a future in black comedy, too.

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