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"DROWNING MONA"
(2000) (Danny DeVito, Bette Midler) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Black Comedy: After the most hated woman in a small town dies in a suspicious car accident, the local sheriff sets out to discover who, among the many viable suspects, may be the guilty party.
PLOT:
In the small town of Verplanck, N.Y., the most hated woman around, Mona Dearly (BETTE MIDLER), has just perished after her car flew through a guardrail and ended up sinking in a river. Although no one particularly liked Mona - including her seemingly timid husband, Phil (WILLIAM FICHTNER), and one-handed loser of a son, Jeff (MARCUS THOMAS), local police chief Wyatt Rash (DANNY DEVITO) figures he should investigate the accident.

When Lucinda (KATHLEEN WILHOITE), the local mechanic, tells Rash that the accident was no accident, the chief begins questioning everyone about their whereabouts around the time of the incident as well as their feelings toward the deceased. Beyond Phil and Jeff -- who don't appear too upset about Mona's demise -- Rash talks to Bobby Calzone (CASEY AFFLECK) a not particularly bright fellow who runs a small landscaping business with Jeff and never particularly liked him or his mother.

While Bobby obviously had reason to kill Mona, Rash's view of him is tainted since he's also engaged to the chief's daughter, Ellen (NEVE CAMPBELL), who didn't like the Dearly family for messing with her fiancÚ's livelihood.

Then there's Rona Mace (JAMIE LEE CURTIS), a white trash waitress at the local diner who was carrying on affair with both Phil and Jeff. Added to the mix is Clarence (TRACEY WALTER), an old man who reportedly saw the accident and then more, Murph (MARK PELLEGRINO), Bobby's bartender brother, and Cubby (WILL FARRELL), the local funeral home director. As Rash tries to solve the case with the help of his subordinates, including Feege (PETER DOBSON) and Tony Carlucci (PAUL BEN-VICTOR), he must choose from the many suspects, all of whom had motive to get rid of the woman.

OUR TAKE: 1 out of 10
Although we're still in the first quarter of 2000, the talented and divine "Miss M," a.k.a. Bette Midler, already has the distinction of appearing in two of the year's worst films, "Isn't She Great" and now, "Drowning Mona."

Despite playing the title character, at least the gifted singer turned actress (it's becoming more difficult to remember that she once received an Oscar nomination for her role in "For the Boys") can't be accused of shouldering the entire burden of this mess. Yet, it's quite likely that she probably wishes she had kept her distance from it.

A supposed black comedy twist on those old Agatha Christie stories where multiple suspects with varying motives are questioned in relation to a murder, this film is dead on arrival and comes off far stiffer than the corpse that jumpstarts the proceedings. With only a sparse handful of moments that might elicit a lone chuckle or two, the film also completely fails to deliver any decent sort of clever or imaginative - let alone funny - black comedy material.

While the genre, that's noted for containing morbid, tasteless or generally offensive material earmarked for hopefully generating laughs, is a tough one to pull off - the field is littered by past failures such as "Very Bad Things" - this may be one of the weaker such efforts to hit the big screen.

Other than a few brief moments that portray different ways in which a character may have lost his hand and the general nastiness and disdain many of the characters display toward one another, the film is noticeably lacking in the proper goods to qualify for, let alone succeed, in the genre.

As a general comedy, it's not very good or funny either. When the press kit for any film quotes the filmmakers as comparing their effort to "Andy Griffith on acid" and praising it for having a "very funny script" that's "well written" and "a smart comedy," it's not difficult to ascertain that there are bound to be ensuing problems since self-praise is often a tell-tale sign of a cover-up (not to mention an attempt to purposefully try to influence critics' reaction to a film). If there's one thing this film does succeed at, however, it's in delivering its fair share of lame material.

Although the mostly unimaginative script - from the fingers of screenwriter Peter Steinfeld (the TV movie "Echo") - has built-in and time-proven potential (think of the far superior "Murder By Death"), Steinfeld and director Nick Gomez (the barely seen "New Jersey Drive" and "Illtown") manage to let it slip through their collective fingers. While I'll admit that films featuring the less intelligent inhabitants of our planet aren't my favorite from the get-go, if constructed and handled properly, they can work. Unfortunately, and despite the film having an abundance of - and over reliance on - such elements, this one doesn't and instead plunders the depths of stupidity.

In fact, the funniest thing about this film is the opening credit stating that the town in which this story takes place was a test market for the Yugo and thus everyone drives them. Yet, even that element, like most everything else in this film, isn't explored or developed to any sort of satisfactory level.

The biggest failure is in not getting more mileage out of the comedic, "whodunit" element. Part of what made films such as "Murder By Death" so much fun was the diverse and richly drawn characters and their interesting, if demented behavior and motives. Here, the characters have all fallen from the same rotten tree (perhaps some in-breeding is to blame) and the reasons they're all suspects - for their hatred of the title character - are neither particularly that funny nor developed to get the most bang for the buck from them.

Despite the presence of a decent cast, the performances are par for the course (for a bad film) and certainly aren't memorable. The character played by Bette Midler ("First Wives Club," "Outrageous Fortune"), while killed in the first scene, does make other appearances in various flashbacks, but the actress doesn't provide much other than a more outrageous, but otherwise unimaginative retreading of her mean-spirited character in "Ruthless People."

Danny DeVito ("Tin Men," "Romancing the Stone"), who also produced the film for reasons unknown (and appeared with Midler in "Ruthless People"), never seems comfortable in the role. Granted, he is playing the mostly straight-laced and humorless police chief, but his character does nothing for the proceedings beyond pushing the story forward through its thankfully short ninety-some minute runtime.

The rest of the performances, ranging from the likes of Neve Campbell (the "Scream" films, TV's "Party of Five"), Jamie Lee Curtis ("Trading Places," "A Fish Called Wanda") and Casey Affleck ("200 Cigarettes," "To Die For"), are just as flat due to uninspired development of their characters. Overall, the film simply doesn't work on any level beyond being bad. With relatively few decent black comedy elements, it's up to the film's standard comedy to take up the slack, but there's simply not much present to do so.

Perhaps some potential was present at one time to attract the cast to this project and make them believe it could work. Unfortunately, for their, the film's, and our sakes, none of it seemed to survive in its final form. While the cast and crew presumably thought they had something clever or funny here, "Drowning Mona" comes like a cat that's fallen into a body of water. It's not a pretty sight, people won't want to be in its company, and in the end it's nothing but all wet. We give the film - that deserves the fate of its descriptive title - a 1 out of 10.




Reviewed February 24, 2000 / Posted March 3, 2000


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