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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Drowning Mona (2000)
2 Stars

Directed by Nick Gomez
Cast: Danny DeVito, Neve Campbell, Casey Affleck, Jamie Lee Curtis, William Fichtner, Marcus Thomas, Bette Midler, Peter Dobson, Kathleen Wilhoite, Will Ferrell, Tracey Walter.
2000 – 91 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for mild violence and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 4, 2000.

Nick Gomez's "Drowning Mona" displays an ensemble of interesting and inventive characters in search of a sharper, more focused screenplay than the one they have been given. Hand it to the bright, exciting cast for giving it their all (and they are all obviously having a blast with their roles), but the script, by Peter Steinfeld, aimlessly wanders around between them, not knowing where it is going, and resting its rooting interest on the tepid whodunit plotline.

Mona Dearly (Bette Midler) is the most despised wench living in the small white trash town of Verplanck, New York, which was the testing site years ago for the Yugo car company. When she is unable to put on her brakes and flies right over the cliff and into a watery grave in the opening scene, suspicions are aroused by Chief Wyatt Rash (Danny DeVito) when he learns the brake lines had been intentionally cut. Soon, everyone even remotely related to the maniacal Mona is a suspect, including her husband Phil (William Fichtner) and her son Jeff (Marcus Thomas), both of which hated her as much as everyone else. Jeff is landscaping partners with Bobby Calzone (Casey Affleck), who was consistently verbally and even physically battered by Mona, and he is about to marry the pretty, tough-spoken Ellen (Neve Campbell). Having an affair with both Phil and Jeff is Rona (Jamie Lee Curtis), the straightforward waitress at the local diner, who also may or may not have killed Mona because she wanted Mona's family to herself.

At just 91 minutes, "Drowning Mona" feels drug out, and one of the reasons for this is that the film always seems like it is finally going to take off with its story, and in the interactions of the Verplanck inhabitants, but it never truly does. Occasionally, there will be a spark of wit and originality, as when Rona and Phil, meeting at their usual hotel room for a tryst, use the "Wheel of Fortune" game as foreplay. But more often than not, the humor just isn't edgy enough to work the way it should, and at least one of the detractors of this is its bothersome PG-13 rating when it very well could have been R, and probably a whole lot funnier. That isn't to say the film has no laughs; one scene, in particular, drove me to tears, and I missed the whole next scene because I couldn't get over the previous one. Too bad the laughs are relatively few and far between.

Advertised as one of the major stars of the picture, Bette Midler actually only pops up sporadically, and even then it is only for a minute or two each time, via flashbacks that are supposed to present her as this evil woman, but fails. Sure, she has a hot temper, but she doesn't seem all that bad, and in the one good flashback sequence Midler is given, Mona loses at a knife-throwing contest and expresses her frustration for not ever being a winner at anything in her life. Otherwise, Midler is sorely underused, but at least better than she was in the recent stinker, "Isn't She Great."

Of the rest of the cast, only Danny DeVito is disappointing, not because of his performance, but because his character is the one that gets very few funny things to say. The high points are most certainly Neve Campbell, who is shaping up to be a promising major talent in Hollywood, if only she starts to choose her projects a little more wisely (her upcoming Sundance hit, "Panic," co-starring William H. Macy, is a good start), and especially Jamie Lee Curtis, who it is nice to see again after not appearing in a feature film in over a year. Curtis joyously gets right into her character, and the film always gains the most mileage out of her appearances. And Will Ferrell, as a balding mortician with a taste for taking kinky pictures of scantily clad women in his backroom, demonstrates his sheer comic timing to his few scenes.

Undoubtedly made on a limited budget, the cinematography, by Bruce Douglas Johnson, is particularly flat for a wide-release motion picture, and after seeing his 1997 misfire, "Illtown," and now the superior, but still not very good "Drowning Mona," it is safe to say director Gomez is never going to be winning any Oscars. Relying on the performances alone, try as they might, they simply cannot withhold the weight of the film all by themselves. "Drowning Mona" has promise, and it has occasional flare, but for the most part, it is a string of missed opportunities.

©2000 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman