Drowning Mona

Mar 8, 2000 at 12:00 am

In the lively and funny Drowning Mona, the sleepy burg of Verplanck in upstate New York is portrayed as dysfunction junction, the kind of oddball community where nearly every resident drives a Yugo with vanity plates.

When the much-despised Mona Dearly (Bette Midler) drives into the Hudson River, the gleeful response of Verplanck’s denizens troubles the good-hearted, Broadway musical-loving police chief, Wyatt Rash (Danny DeVito). Even his cocksure, by-the-book deputy, Feege (Peter Dobson), happily declares "Ding! Dong! The witch is dead!"

Wyatt’s thankless job leads him to a plethora of interconnected suspects, a bizarre group which seems to have been born as Agatha Christie’s white-trash nightmare: Mona’s browbeaten, resentful husband, Phil (William Fichtner), whose regular motel trysts with waitress/over-the-hill rocker Rona Mace (Jamie Lee Curtis) angers his dumb-as-dirt son, Jeff (Marcus Thomas), whose mean-spirited laziness is sabotaging the landscaping business that he runs with the meek, doe-eyed Bobby Calzone (Casey Affleck), who’s engaged to Wyatt’s high-strung daughter, Ellen (Neve Campbell).

By filling the town with more eccentrics per capita than "Twin Peaks, screenwriter Peter Steinfeld has fertile soil on which to construct a clever whodunit, and director Nick Gomez (Laws of Gravity, Illtown) keeps things from becoming cartoonish by employing laid-back, naturalistic camerawork.

What’s most surprising are the fine performances, both from the headliners – who immerse themselves so completely in their roles that outside personas just melt away – and a wonderfully wigged-out supporting cast (only Will Ferrell of "Saturday Night Live" couldn’t shake the tendency to choose caricature over character).

Drowning Mona doesn’t pretend it’s anything but disposable entertainment. Within that context, there are some marvelous scenes, such as the town cops discussing the circumstances leading up to Jeff’s deforming accident, a comic marvel made all the funnier by the offhand way the truth is eventually revealed.

This may be nothing more than a junk-food movie, but it’s one tasty snack.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].