Films, TV, and Theatre


Drowning Mona (2000)

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, William Fichtner
Director: Nick Gomez

TV Guide

Is 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

TOM GLIATTO, People Magazine

Like 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.

Drowning 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



"Drowning 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.

A 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.

Mona's 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
dummies--i.e., her husband and son--who surround her.

Steinfeld's 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.

Mick LaSalle, Chronicle Staff Critic

Bette Midler plays the title role in Drowning Mona, Nick Gomez's (Illtown) comedy about murder, matrimony 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.

This 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.

Bette 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.

Drowning Mona is not the next A Fish Called Wanda, but if you like your comedy dark, it is enjoyable.

`Mona' Done In by Bland, Dim-Witted Characters
Midler's character dies too early to save comedy

Todd McCarthy, Variety

"Drowning 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.

Since making 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 talented cast.

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 acceptable.

Michael Rechtshaffen

Playing like a white-trash "Rashomon," Nick Gomez's "Drowning Mona" is a buoyant if slight black comedy.

Armed 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.

It 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.

Set 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 she went.

When 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 for suspects.

Among the possibilities:

Phil (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).

Then 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.

As 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.

Director 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.

Midler 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.

Rounding out the performances, "Saturday Night Live's" Will Ferrell plays an effectively creepy funeral home proprietor, and Peter Dobson succeeds as a gung-ho deputy.

There's 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.

The 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,

March 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.

"Drowning 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, blub, blub.

Steinfeld's 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.

Midler's 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.

But 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 to be.

Part 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.

As 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!")

Affleck, 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.

DeVito's 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.