Several movies came to my mind while I was viewing Nick Gomez’s Drowning Mona. Firstly, I recalled Harmony Korine’s Gummo, another example of the tasteless representation of stereotypical “white trash,” though Korine’s effort managed to make a lasting impression, albeit a sick one, unlike Drowning Mona. Secondly, there’s Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo, primarily because, like Mona, it features a woodchipper sequence and more jokes at the expense of rural residents. And thirdly, I conjured up Jim Abrahams and David Zucker’s Ruthless People, for its earlier teaming of Mona stars Bette Midler and Danny DeVito. But while the last is a truly funny flick starring these two, now, almost 15 years later, even their considerable talents can’t salvage the watery mess known as Drowning Mona.
The plot of Drowning Mona is this: poor Mona Dearly (Midler) drives her canary-colored Yugo off of a cliff, and everyone on the small town of Verplanck, New York is a suspect in her apparent murder. Who could have killed her, and why? Within twenty minutes, it was clear I wasn’t going to care. Even given her recent box office bomb, Isn’t She Great?, Midler is this film’s only strong element, but sadly she isn’t on screen long or often. She shines as the town’s nasty crankster, complete with the requisite vocabulary and sneers to elicit the only laughs during the film’s entire 95 minute running time.
In lieu of more Midler, we are instead assaulted with a series of unrealistic and downright asinine performances and situations, including the annoyingly overwrought Casey Affleck as Bobby Calzone, one of several characters with good reason to terminate Mona, who happens to be the mother of his worthless landscaping business partner, Jeff (Marcus Thomas). Bobby’s voice might be likened to such nasal greats as Fran Drescher and Victoria Jackson; however, he is not nearly as humorous. In addition to Bobby, Verplanck’s stereotypically backwoods denizens include Rash, the unbelievably (literally) intuitive chief-of-police (DeVito); Mona’s mean-spirited husband Phil (William Fichtner), Rash’s daughter Ellen Rash (Neve Campbell), engaged to young Bobby; Rona, the chain-smoking waitress (Jamie Lee Curtis), who’s sleeping with both Phil and Jeff; and the omnipresent, observant bum (Tracey Walter). Any one of these characters appears to have a good reason to murder Mona, demonstrated in numerous flashbacks that show her heaping abuses on them all. (As the film’s promotional tagline portentously informs us: “The death of Mona Dearly wasn’t so much a whodunit, as a who didn’t.”) And I haven’t even mentioned the silly array of bumbling, Jim Varney-type cops, Jerry Springer-trashy townsfolk, or the awful, condescending, narrow-minded, and unamusing atmosphere that surrounds all of them.
While it’s plainly unfunny, Drowning Mona also has a tough time trying to sustain any one tone, sometimes hip, at others oafish, and at still others, almost giddy. For examples, it repeatedly offers up sexual situations involving the Wheel of Fortune home game, and a tiresome running sight gag involving the personalized license plates on everyone’s Yugos (the only brand of car in town). First-time feature screenwriter Peter Steinfield seems unable to decide if he is concocting a murder mystery, dark comedy, or broad slapstick: the movie might have done well to stick to just one genre.
The film’s structure is likewise fragmented: flashbacks are its primary and poorly used narrative vehicle: the Rashomon-like rewritings of a couple of scenes only seem like overkill. Also, it night be worth a mention to director Gomez (whose previous films, Laws of Gravity, New Jersey Drive, and Illtown, are famously urban-gritty) for future reference; when the pacing of your movie is s-l-o-w, your audience tends to want to z-z-z-z-z-z-z. It was during the movie’s plodding second half when Rash begins to gather evidence and when we are introduced to an oversexed undertaker (Will Ferrell of Saturday Night Live and Superstar) when I began to hear impatient rustling, namely mine.
For all this, I must admit that the soundtrack, while merely a compilation of some well-worn songs, like “Joy to the World,” there were less stale melodies, like the Pipkins’ “Gimme Dat Ding” and Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime.” Despite these tunes and Midler’s performance, I was as unable to sustain my interest as Steinfield was unable to sustain the tone. Better luck next time for this newcomer, who, hopefully, won’t be borrowing so much from scripts that have already been written.