A disconsolate black comedy
about a bitter old harridan (Bette Midler) who takes a header
into a lake in one of the tiny, tinny cars, and the sheriff (Danny
DeVito) who has a town full of folks who were itching to see her
dead. And boy oh boy, is this a town filled with rubes (consult
their choices for transportation and board games for proof)--
add everyone's IQs together and you might just hit 100.
Stars: Bette Midler, Danny DeVito, Neve Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis,
Director: Nick Gomez
there anything so painful as a comedy whose every gag falls flat and then lies
there, flopping like a dying flounder? The cast of this broad, mean-spirited farce
gamely don hideous wigs, monstrous clothes and tool around in boxy little Yugos
with vanity license plates, apparently hoping to run into a joke. Sadly, they
never do. Mona Dearly (Bette Midler) is the meanest woman in boring little Verplanck,
NY; her own family lives in terror of her sputtering rages. No one's sorry when
she drowns after going off the road in her son Jeff's (Marcus Thomas) car; no
one's surprised to learn that the brake lines were cut, and no one's especially
anxious to find out who was responsible. Of course, that might be because just
about everyone in town had a reason to do Mona in, including her battered husband
(William Fichtner), his hard-bitten girlfriend (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Jeff's sad-sack
business partner Bobby Calzone (Casey Affleck). Show tune-loving Chief Rash (Danny
DeVito) must sort through this small army of suspects while helping his daughter
Ellen (Neve Campbell) prepare for her wedding to Bobby. Since everyone involved
seems to have proceeded from the smug assumption that low-class, small-town types
are inherently funny — from the roots of their ghastly hair to the heels of their
tasteless shoes — no one seems to have felt compelled to develop the film's plot
beyond the pitch, "a white-trash MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS." Scenes
play like sketches ("the smutty undertaker," "the folk-singing
lesbian auto mechanic," "What really happened to Jeff's hand?"),
characters are defined by their accessories and atmosphere is established through
tacky songs of the '70s. The film fairly oozes condescending self-satisfaction,
which might be less annoying if it were even remotely funny. — Maitland McDonagh
GLIATTO, People Magazine
lightning, inspiration rarely strikes the same spot twice. In 1986's Ruthless
People, a fiendishly funny black
comedy, Midler played a woman so vile that when she is kidnapped, her businessman
husband (DeVito) passes on paying her ransom. In the far-inferior Drowning Mona,
Midler again is cast as a harridan, but this time someone cuts the brake lines
on her Yugo and the car plunges into a lake, resulting in Midler's soggy demise.
DeVito is back too, as the sheriff investigating the case. Everyone in town, he
soon discovers in this labored comedy, had reason to wish Mona gone.
sinks from the start. Director Nick Gomez (illtown) shows no affinity for the
material, letting his talented cast, including Campbell as DeVito's daughter and
Curtis as a waitress, ham it up as if they were in a Saturday Night Live sketch.
(PG-13) Bottom Line: All wet
THOMAS, TIMES STAFF WRITER
Mona" takes a fresh and funny spin on the classic mystery plot in which someone
is so universally loathed that practically everyone is a credible suspect. With
an inspired and frequently hilarious script by newcomer Peter Steinfeld, director
Nick Gomez, in his fourth feature, has done his best work since his knockout 1991
first feature, "Laws of Gravity," a gritty take on a pair of feckless
Brooklyn thieves. The sure feel Gomez had for blue-collar life in that film carries
over to "Drowning Mona," but this time he plays it for comic effect,
alternately tart and affectionate. The setting is a little lower-middle-class
village in Upstate New York overlooking the Hudson River--which is where Bette
Midler's dreadful Mona Dearly winds up when the brakes on her car mysteriously
fail, causing it to sail over a cliff into waters far below. A blowzy, embittered
middle-aged woman with a cowed yet unfaithful husband, Phil (William Fichtner),
and a thick-headed son Jeff (Marcus Thomas) who somehow lost his right hand, Mona
is one of those ferocious types stuck in a perpetual stateof rage.
lot of her anger is directed at the sweet-natured but timid Bobby (Casey Affleck),
who has unwisely started up a gardening business with the klutzy, loutish Jeff.
The business is not really making it, but Mona is not about to let Bobby, at whom
she lunges like an attack dog, out of the deal. She is as quick to defend Jeff
like a mother bear her cubs as she is to turn on him like she does everyone else.
Poor Bobby is always struggling for money, especially as he has an impending marriage
to his live-in girlfriend, Ellen (Neve Campbell), daughter of the local chief
of police, Wyatt Rash (Danny DeVito). Wyatt's a warm, capable man with a sharp
mind whose references to Broadway musicals, his grand passion, are lost on one
and all. He's quick to sniff something fishy about Mona's death.
demise, swiftly followed by Rash's probings, throws the town into jangling conflicting
emotions. Everyone is ecstatic over being freed from Mona's baleful presence but
fears that a too-candid expression of relief might make them suspects. No one
is more nervous about this prospect than diner waitress Rona (Jamie Lee Curtis),
who's slouching toward middle age while carrying on what has been up to now a
futureless, mechanical affair with the rather dim Phil, who she fears will end
up taking the rap for killing his wife, even if he didn't. Steinfeld is endlessly
clever at keeping us guessing as well as laughing. He tantalizes us with letting
us think we know who did it early on, which gets us wondering as to how he will
manage to work everything out, only to throw us yet another curve. Along the way,
the film works up a shrewd, amused view of the myriad workings of human nature,
and in flashbacks allows Mona a key scene that goes a long way to illuminating
her frustration as a once-attractive woman too intelligent for the
her husband and son--who surround her.
clever script with its zingy dialogue enables Gomez to draw comically yet delicately
nuanced portrayals from his delightful ensemble. Affleck is a wonder at suggesting
that his chin will start quivering in fear at any second. Midler, DeVito, Campbell
and Curtis are as skilled and amusing as we would expect, but Gomez gets the same
level of accomplished portrayals right down the line as he does from his stars.
Fichtner made an impression as the rugged cop in "Go" who proves to
be a surprisingly insinuating swinger in one of that film's funniest scenes, and
as the randy but slow-witted Phil, he's once again a standout. Similarly, Kathleen
Wilhoite is very funny as the ultra-competent, ultra-focused local auto mechanic
who whips out her guitar as she performs her comically folk-style "Ode to
Mona Dearly"; what's more, the film handles a pass she makes at Ellen with
good-natured, even-handed humor.
LaSalle, Chronicle Staff Critic
Midler plays the title role in Drowning Mona, Nick Gomez's (Illtown) comedy about
and landscaping gone wrong. Mona is a harpy who rubs everyone she meets the wrong
way. She threatens police officers, beats up the townspeople and makes her family
suffer. When she turns up dead in her submerged Yugo, fingers start pointing but
no one seems all that sorry she's gone. Did her cheating husband, Phil (William
Fichtner) do the deed? What about the sons that she tortured? How about Bobby
(Casey Affleck) who was forced to keep Mona's loser son, Jeff (Marcus Thomas)
on his payroll or face her wrath? Maybe police chief Rash (Danny DeVito) did it,
or his daughter, Ellen (Neve Campbell)? The white trash lifestyle of Mona Dearly
is told in a series of flashbacks to make the whole picture of her malicious life
apparent to the audience.
is a humorous, if mean spirited, comedy. Under the direction of Gomez, Peter Steinfeld's
script is given a crisp, punchy style. Flashbacks and visualized ideas come fast
and furious to provide a lot of comedic impact. Gomez was an interesting choice
to direct Steinfeld's debut feature, given that it’s a comedy about a crime. Most
of Gomez's previous directorial work was been in television crime dramas (The
Sopranos, Homicide, Oz), where comedy isn’t a strong element. However, he makes
the transition smoothly, assisted by a strong cast that works well as an ensemble.
Casey Affleck is good as Bobby, a guy who is just barely bright enough to mow
lawns and be the intellectual superior of Jeff, the beer swilling dufus who he
is stuck with as a partner. Will Farrell plays Cubby, the undertaker who only
warms up at the thought of more work.
Midler is over the top in her lead role – a place she’s accustomed to after all
these years of overblown performances. In an odd piece of casting, the filmmakers
put Jamie Lee Curtis in the role of Rona a 33-year-old waitress. This is just
a bit of a stretch, as Curtis is nearly a decade older than the character she
plays, and she doesn’t seem 33 here. Danny DeVito makes a departure from his usual
roles playing larger than life extroverts, instead playing a calm, deductive centre
of the plot, as he tries to unravel the mystery of why Mona's Yugo careened into
the river. One quirky note: everyone in town drives Yugos: the police force, the
characters – everyone. It seems that they somehow managed to find every working
Yugo in existence in order to put them in this movie.
Mona is not the next A Fish Called Wanda, but if you like your comedy dark, it
Done In by Bland, Dim-Witted Characters
Midler's character dies too early
to save comedy
Mona" is a white-trash black comedy, a caustic working-class whodunit in
which the solution to the murder mystery takes a distant back seat to countless
barbs and jibes tossed in the direction of the mostly imbecilic cast of characters.
Cuttingly funny at its best but sometimes strained and a bit soft by the end,
this extremely well-cast Destination picture could scoop up decent initial coin
by virtue of coming out in wide release against light competition March 3, much
in the fashion of distrib's most recent title, "Eye of the Beholder."
But it will need strong promo to carve out a profile, especially with younger
viewers, for whom the similarly bilious 1986 Danny DeVito/Bette Midler hit "Ruthless
People" is a non-memory.
The majority of the mordant humor in Peter
Steinfeld's determinedly nasty screenplay is rooted in its characters, and the
characters who live in the Hudson Valley hick town of Verplanck, N.Y., are almost
all aggressively clueless types who make significant contributions to lowering
the average national IQ and annual income levels.
First tipoff to Verplanck's
special status is an opening title informing the audience that the town was once
a test market for the intro of the ultra-cheap Yugo car in the U.S. Sure enough,
everyone in town is still driving these tin cans on wheels, and the vehicle lives
up to its death-trap rep in the very first scene, as Mona Dearly (Midler) loses
her brakes and careens off a cliff into the Hudson (which looks an awfully lot
like a lake in this Southern California-lensed production).
With a tip
of the hat to Agatha Christie, yarn's big joke is that everyone is a suspect in
Mona's demise because, as numerous first-person flashbacks illustrate, she was
truly the wicked witch of the East, a heinous person who terrorized the town,
a verbally and physically abusive monster about whom everyone has a horror story.
As mild-mannered police chief Wyatt Rash (DeVito) makes the rounds in his casual,
methodical investigation, it soon becomes clear that any number of people could
have had a motive to kill the old battle-ax, and while everyone admits to having
hated Mona, no one, of course, will fess up to having done the deed.
First among equals in the town's lineup of dim bulbs is Mona's stub-armed son,
Jeff (Marcus Thomas), a beer-guzzling cretin who would have been right at home
in "Fargo" and whose mean streak is second only to his late mother's.
Jeff works as the landscaping partner of blond pretty boy Bobby Calzone (Casey
Affleck), who's pretty dense himself but has managed to capture the heart of Chief
Rash's cute but self-absorbed daughter, Ellen (Neve Campbell), to whom he's engaged.
Then there's Mona's long-suffering widower, Phil (William Fichtner),
a cowering Milquetoast who insists to Rash that he was "a battered husband"
but is a particularly suspicious character because he's long been involved with
the local diner's sexy, hard-bitten waitress, Rona (Jamie Lee Curtis), who's been
two-timing him with Jeff, of all people. Among the other principals who come to
figure in the intrigue are strutting cop Feege (Peter Dobson), resourceful auto
mechanic Lucinda (Kathleen Wilhoite) and snooping old coot Clarence (Tracey Walter).
Pic maintains a moderately bracing amusement quotient while the baseness
of the characters is being sketched in, often via slashing flashbacks. Particularly
funny, for instance, are the various versions of how Jeff lost his hand; regardless
of how it was actually lopped off, it always involved his reaching for a beer,
heedless of where the bottle may have been. Pic also gets good mileage out of
Bobby and Jeff's endlessly argumentative working relationship, as well as from
the comically repetitive way Mona is seen to have escalated every little dispute
into World War III.
Forward momentum gradually slows down over the distance,
however, and once the murderer is identified, viewer interest dwindles as things
get wrapped up in perfunctory, overly convenient fashion.
his name with the gritty "Laws of Gravity" and following up with the
impressive but more problematic "New Jersey Drive" and "Illtown,"
director Nick Gomez has been on hiatus from features for four years, during which
he has done acclaimed work on the cutting-edge TV series "Homicide,"
"Oz" and "The Sopranos." "Mona" thus reps a stylistic
departure from his grim, in-your-face earlier work, and while the film sometimes
feels as though it's trying too hard, Gomez nonetheless extracts potent comedy
from the material's more outrageous situations and displays a sure hand with his
Newcomer Thomas makes a big impression as a belligerently
dim-witted Jeff, and Curtis has a field day playing a nail-tough rock 'n' roll
chick none too happy with the knowledge that life has passed her by. DeVito, for
once, is an island of calm in an ocean of choppy waters, while Midler is every
bit the walking fright show Mona's meant to be.
Fichtner amusingly portrays
a man whose life no one would envy, Affleck is duly ambiguous as a spineless weasel
who's gotten by on his sweet looks, Campbell comes off appealingly as a girl who
unfortunately inherited only some of her father's sense but a full share of his
distraction, while Wilhoite is a gas as the most competent person in town, and
one who dimly awakens Ellen to something she never knew about herself.
Except for the occasional views of mountains, L.A.-area locations serve reasonably
well for the Eastern settings. Production values are clearly budget-minded but
like a white-trash "Rashomon," Nick Gomez's "Drowning Mona"
is a buoyant if slight black comedy.
with a dry, quirky wit (courtesy of Peter Steinfeld's languidly loopy script)
and a game name ensemble, the Destination Films release certainly has its amusing
moments but will unlikely make much of a splash in terms of ticket sales.
should, however, find a comfortable niche on video, where the names Danny DeVito,
Bette Midler, Neve Campbell and Jamie Lee Curtis will draw renters' attention.
in the quaint, apparently Yugo-test-market town of Verplanck, N.Y., "Drowning
Mona" centers on the demise of the not-so-dearly departed Mona Dearly (a
gleefully harsh Midler), a card-carrying terror who seemed to make enemies wherever
the yellow Yugo she was driving mysteriously plunges into the Hudson River, Broadway-obsessed
Police Chief Wyatt Rash (DeVito) launches an investigation that won't be hurting
(William Fichtner) and Jeff (Marcus Thomas) Dearly, Mona's dim and dimmer husband
and son, respectively, who both turn out to be having a fling with weary diner
waitress Rona Mace (Jamie Lee Curtis).
there's wide-eyed innocent Bobby Calzone (Casey Affleck), Jeff's landscaping business
partner who was constantly being bullied by Mona and her son. And, just to complicate
matters, Bobby is engaged to Rash's daughter, Ellen (Neve Campbell), who is particularly
delighted about Mona's early departure.
the various motives start piling up faster than the picture's wry non sequiturs
("I watch A&E; I see how these things work," pronounces a paranoid
Rona in regard to police procedure), Rash certainly has his detective work cut
out for himself.
Gomez, who first attracted attention with his 1991 feature "Laws of Gravity,"
lends a nice, visual gravity to Steinfeld's affably oddball but rather plot-thin
screenplay, while his crack comic ensemble takes it home.
manages to make the most of what probably amounts to 10 minutes of screen time,
mainly in flashbacks, and DeVito and Curtis are also fine, but the show is handily
stolen by goofy father-and-son act of Fichtner (so good in "Go" as a
leering cop) and Thomas, who manage to elevate acute laziness to an art form.
out the performances, "Saturday Night Live's" Will Ferrell plays an
effectively creepy funeral home proprietor, and Peter Dobson succeeds as a gung-ho
also solid work on the opposite side of the camera thanks to Bruce Douglas Johnson's
("Happy, Texas") sunny lens work and costume designer Terry Dresbach's
generous displays of J.C. Penney chic.
soundtrack, meanwhile, serves up a tasty portion of '70s guilty-pleasure pop,
including Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime," Hot Butter's "Popcorn"
and that old David Dundas ditty "Jeans On."
Charles Taylor, Salon.com
03, 2000 | F or a while, the backwoods slapstick "Drowning Mona" coasts
along on the talents of its cast and its own good nature. The director, Nick Gomez,
and the screenwriter, Peter Steinfeld, don't play the game the Coen brothers did
in "Fargo," presenting a community of rubes and basing the laughs on
shared contempt for their stupidity. (In "Fargo" this was personified
by the characters' accents). Gomez and Steinfeld like the craziness of their characters,
even like their deviousness. What they're trying for is something like Preston
Sturges' affectionate portraits of everyday dementia.
Mona" doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as those movies,
though. Gomez, a talented filmmaker whose work has heretofore focused on urban
street life ("New Jersey Drive" and the remarkable, nearly unseen "illtown"
) is certainly game (and it's nice to see him working) but he doesn't have the
sense of escalating anarchy that farce needs. The movie is flat-footed, and the
pacing gives you time to rest between laughs. So you lose the feeling that common
sense is speeding away like the back lights of a train hurtling down a track.
The complications in Steinfeld's script are evenly spaced when they need to crash
in on the heels of each other.
Our first glimpse of Mona Dearly (Bette
Midler) is a pip. Dragging herself out of the house in the morning, Mona is hilariously
blowsy. She looks like someone with the disposition of a rattler come back in
the body of a hung-over bulldog -- she's completely unsteady and you wouldn't
want to dream about crossing her. Milder has never been a particularly vain star;
she's always been willing to give herself over to raucous comedy. But what's so
hilarious about her appearance is nonetheless the shock of seeing a big star present
herself so unattractively for laughs. (It's a little like seeing Elizabeth Taylor
in "X, Y and Zee.") She gets into her car and, just a few minutes later,
her brakes fail and she drives through a guard rail right into the river. Blub,
script takes off from that opening with a good comic premise: Everyone hated Mona
so much that, when the local sheriff (Danny DeVito) finds out that the car's brake
lines were cut, nearly everyone who knew Mona becomes a suspect.
Mona appears in flashback and though Midler certainly doesn't hold back, the examples
the film presents of her meanness are (with one quick, nasty exception) not nearly
witty enough for the character to assume the monstrous proportion she has in the
town's collective brain. Mona needs to be so triumphantly nasty that (like Cruella
De Vil) just the sight of her makes you eager to see what she'll do next. Instead,
she's something less interesting: just a mean, loud-mouthed bitch.
the cast keeps the movie afloat, at least for a while. Some of the characters,
like Mona's husband, Phil, (William Fichtner), or Rona (Jamie Lee Curtis), the
waitress he's fooling around with, are little more than serviceable (though Fichtner's
expression of shell-shocked good fortune is pretty funny). And Neve Campbell's
Ellen, the sheriff's daughter whose fianc Bobby (Casey Affleck) is the prime suspect
in Mona's death, seems ready to be more game than the script gives her a chance
of the disappointment of "Drowning Mona" is that the memorable oddballs
Gomez and Steinfeld have populated their town with seem so promising. Like Kathleen
Wilhoite as Lucinda, the town's singer-songwriter lesbian garage mechanic who
gets laughs just by the heavy-footed confidence of the way she strides around
in her overalls, or Will Ferrell's lecherous undertaker Cubby, with his maniac's
stare and absolutely no casket-side manner.
Mona's son Jeff, a stoner metalhead who's missing a hand, Marcus Thomas walks
through the movie with his mouth drooping open, processing even the simplest information
as if someone has asked him to do trigonometry after drinking two six packs. Jeff
is the dead weight around Bobby's neck; the two are partners in a landscaping
business in which Jeff leaves Bobby with all the work while scaring away most
potential customers. (When Bobby chides him that the girl Jeff flirts with on
one job is 13, Jeff exclaims "Finally!")
with a blond, nice-boy haircut, is not bad; that Bobby should be funnier than
he is doesn't seem his fault. The moviemakers present his hesitant good manners
as if, by themselves, they were hilarious. He never quite gets the chance to work
himself into the fevered pitch that would threaten to permanently topple his composure.
sheriff is the movie's most low-key role, but it's further proof of the way DeVito
has reinvented himself as an actor. Some time in the past few years, he must have
decided (thankfully) that he'd gone as far as he could with his evil little tugboat
routine. When he did revisit that mode in "L.A. Confidential" and in
his own wonderful "Matilda" it was in the service of a character, not
shtick. Elsewhere, from movie to movie, even in a nondescript role like the one
he had in "Man on the Moon," DeVito has been a warm, believable presence.
Even when the sheriff warns his Bobby never to destroy his daughter's happiness
there's no trace of the old comic scenery-chewer. "Drowning Mona" doesn't
give DeVito the chance to play the full-fledged character he did in "Living
Out Loud," his best performance. But he's still a pleasure to watch, a small
reminder that more than anything else, it's actors that keep you going.