Drowning Mona

             In the quiet little town of Verplanck in upstate New York, life is fairly
     uneventful. The audience is told at the start of this uneven but intermittently
     enjoyable comedy mystery that Verplanck served as one of the launching
     sites for the Yugo automobile. In fact, just about every character in the film
     drives one (an amusing sight gag the first couple of times, but one that wears
     thin soon). Also at the start of the film, Mona Dearly (Bette Midler in shrewish
     mode) drives a bright yellow Yugo into a lake a drowns. Was it an accident
     or foul play? That's the issue facing the musical comedy loving police chief
     (a somewhat subdued Danny DeVito, who also served as one of the film's
     executive producers). When it becomes apparent that Mona was murdered,
     the list of suspects reads like a who's who in the town. There's Mona's
     cheating husband (William Fichtner), who claims to have been a battered
     spouse, her dense son (newcomer Marcus Thomas) and the trampy waitress
     (Jamie Lee Curtis) who was keeping time with both men. Even one of the
     police deputies (Peter Dobson) as well as the chief's flighty daughter (Neve
     Campbell) and her fiancé (Casey Affleck) come under suspicion.

             What could have been an amusing spoof of Agatha Christie movies
     devolves into increasingly unbelievable situations, partly due to the script
     (by Peter Steinfeld) and the direction of Nick Gomez. A good farce needs
     to be pitched at a certain level and the actors must maintain that tone
     throughout. In the case of
Drowning Mona, the end result veers wildly
     from scenes that provoke gales of laughter to others that just fall flat.
     A good number of the best jokes are at the expense of Mona's intellectually
     challenged offspring Jeff and actor Marcus Thomas proves a real find.
     Playing this one-handed numbskull (there are numerous flashbacks that
     speculate on how he lost his hand), this relative newcomer almost purloins
     the movies. Giving him chase, though, are a blond Casey Affleck and Neve
     Campbell as an engaged couple. He's struggling to work with Jeff in a
     floundering landscaping business while Campbell is obsessing over the
     details of their impending nuptials. Both deliver deftly comic turns.

             Old pros Jamie Lee Curtis and Danny DeVito do what they can with
     their one-note parts. She sums up her role succinctly: "I'm a 33-year-old
     waitress at a diner that doesn't encourage tipping!" The police chief,
     who's hardly a Columbo, on the other hand remains more sketchy. The
     screenwriter introduces the character's love of show tunes and riffs a bit
     on it, but it isn't carried through enough. Bette Midler is saddled with
     the most difficult role as the murder victim, a hard-nosed, nasty woman
     who's seen only in flashbacks filtered through the memories of those who
     had the strongest motives to kill her. She does what she can with the part
     but coming on the heels of the disastrous
Isn't She Great, this does not
     bode well. It's hard to reconcile the dramatic actress of
The Rose and the
     deft comedienne of those Disney comedies (
Down and Out in Beverly Hills,
      Outrageous Fortune and her recent screen work.

             Gomez who made his mark with gritty urban dramas (
Laws of Gravity,
       New Jersey Drive) and superlative cable TV series episodes (HBO's "Oz"
     and "The Sopranos") here attempts his first outright comedy. Unfortunately,
     the pacing is so scattershot that it undermines the final result. Although
     he has coaxed good work from the already mentioned cast (as well as Will
     Ferrell as a creepy mortician), Gomez doesn't seem at home with the genre.
     Steinfeld's script is also problematic; in setting up a murder with so many
     suspects, one expects a better denouement than the somewhat confusing
     explanation offered. (Audience members are warned to carefully pay
     attention to the last ten minutes for the solution to whodunit). Overall,
       Drowning Mona is a game effort that hits some targets but misses
     many more.

                                         Rating:                C-
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.