Drowning Mona

Directed by Nick Gomez
Starring: Danny DeVito, Bette Midler, Neve Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Casey Affleck.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements, language and brief sexuality.

Review by Matt Heffernan
March 4, 2000

This has been a telling weekend. Once-great directors John Schlesinger and Mike Nichols take a fall, yet some new talent begins its rise. Nick Gomez has made a few little indies, and has spent the last couple years directing episodes of HBO's superior series "Oz" and "The Sopranos". Now he has made a comedy that works with a first-time screenwriter (Peter Steinfeld) -- something that has eluded the veterans.

In the town of Verplank, nestled in the Hudson River Valley, everybody got a new Yugo in the mid-1980s, when the Eastern European auto company was testing its product in America. Mona Dearly (Bette Midler) had only a short time to participate in the test, since she happened to drive her son's three-door hatchback off a cliff and into the river. The police find her dead at the scene, and Chief Wyatt Rash (Danny DeVito) is on the case. He discovers that the car's brakes were cut off, so he has a homocide case on his hands.

However, finding a single suspect is not easy. When her son Jeff (Marcus Thomas) hears the news, his main concern is why she was driving his car. In fact, the whole town hated Mona, and nearly everybody would have a motive to kill her. Her husband, Phil (William Fichtner), is now free to cavort with Rona the waitress (Jamie Lee Curtis). Bobby Calzone (Casey Affleck) can now fire the incompetent Jeff from his landscaping company, and better support his fiancée: Ellen Rash (Neve Campbell), the Chief's daughter. Even the other cops are reluctant to investigate, being just as glad to be rid of the woman.

Just imagine if they had seen Isn't She Great; they would have come at her with pitchforks and torches. Thankfully, Drowning Mona is a far better comedy, with a very dark sense of humor. It's a sort of low-rent version of Fargo, with DeVito taking the Frances McDormand role. So, it may not be totally original, but it is consistently funny.

The humor tends to range between the subtle and the broad, with little in between. There are little touches, like the license plates on all the cars, and Chief Rash's tendency to relate all things to musical theatre. Then there is Jeff, who likes to chase dogs with lawn mowers, and tries to play electric guitar with the stump where his hand used to be. It's all done in good spirit, and the material doesn't become tedious or repulsive.

I must say that I didn't expect this film to be any good at all. All I ask for is the chance to be pleasantly surprised once in a while. I don't want to be a cynic, but seeing too many bad movies just drives me to it.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Drowning Mona (2000)

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Drowning Mona (2000) -- VHS
Drowning Mona (2000) -- DVD
Drowning Mona: Music from and Inspired by the Motion Picture -- Compact Disc

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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan