"Drowning Mona" takes a fresh and funny spin on the classic mystery plot in which someone is so universally loathed that practically everyone is a credible suspect.
With an inspired and frequently hilarious script by newcomer Peter Steinfeld, director Nick Gomez, in his fourth feature, has done his best work since his knockout 1991 first feature, "Laws of Gravity," a gritty take on a pair of feckless Brooklyn thieves.
The sure feel Gomez had for blue-collar life in that film carries over to "Drowning Mona," but this time he plays it for comic effect, alternately tart and affectionate. The setting is a little lower-middle-class village in Upstate New York overlooking the Hudson River--which is where Bette Midler's dreadful Mona Dearly winds up when the brakes on her car mysteriously fail, causing it to sail over a cliff into waters far below. A blowzy, embittered middle-aged woman with a cowed yet unfaithful husband, Phil (William Fichtner), and a thick-headed son Jeff (Marcus Thomas) who somehow lost his right hand, Mona is one of those ferocious types stuck in a perpetual state of rage.
A lot of her anger is directed at the sweet-natured but timid Bobby (Casey Affleck), who has unwisely started up a gardening business with the klutzy, loutish Jeff. The business is not really making it, but Mona is not about to let Bobby, at whom she lunges like an attack dog, out of the deal. She is as quick to defend Jeff like a mother bear her cubs as she is to turn on him like she does everyone else.
Poor Bobby is always struggling for money, especially as he has an impending marriage to his live-in girlfriend, Ellen (Neve Campbell), daughter of the local chief of police, Wyatt Rash (Danny DeVito). Wyatt's a warm, capable man with a sharp mind whose references to Broadway musicals, his grand passion, are lost on one and all. He's quick to sniff something fishy about Mona's death.
Mona's demise, swiftly followed by Rash's probings, throws the town into jangling conflicting emotions. Everyone is ecstatic over being freed from Mona's baleful presence but fears that a too-candid expression of relief might make them suspects. No one is more nervous about this prospect than diner waitress Rona (Jamie Lee Curtis), who's slouching toward middle age while carrying on what has been up to now a futureless, mechanical affair with the rather dim Phil, who she fears will end up taking the rap for killing his wife, even if he didn't.
Steinfeld is endlessly clever at keeping us guessing as well as laughing. He tantalizes us with letting us think we know who did it early on, which gets us wondering as to how he will manage to work everything out, only to throw us yet another curve. Along the way, the film works up a shrewd, amused view of the myriad workings of human nature, and in flashbacks allows Mona a key scene that goes a long way to illuminating her frustration as a once-attractive woman too intelligent for the dummies--i.e., her husband and son--who surround her.
Steinfeld's clever script with its zingy dialogue enables Gomez to draw comically yet delicately nuanced portrayals from his delightful ensemble. Affleck is a wonder at suggesting that his chin will start quivering in fear at any second. Midler, DeVito, Campbell and Curtis are as skilled and amusing as we would expect, but Gomez gets the same level of accomplished portrayals right down the line as he does from his stars.
Fichtner made an impression as the rugged cop in "Go" who proves to be a surprisingly insinuating swinger in one of that film's funniest scenes, and as the randy but slow-witted Phil, he's once again a standout. Similarly, Kathleen Wilhoite is very funny as the ultra-competent, ultra-focused local auto mechanic who whips out her guitar as she performs her comically folk-style "Ode to Mona Dearly"; what's more, the film handles a pass she makes at Ellen with good-natured, even-handed humor.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some thematic elements, language and brief sexuality. Times guidelines: language, adult themes and situations.
Danny DeVito: Wyatt Rash
Bette Midler: Mona Dearly
William Fichtner: Phil
Casey Affleck: Bobby
Neve Campbell: Ellen
Jamie Lee Curtis: Rona
A Destination Films presentation of Neverland Films/Jersey Shore production. Director Nick Gomez. Producers Al Corley, Bart Rosenblatt, Eugene Musso. Executive producers Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Jonathan Weisgal. Screenplay Peter Steinfeld. Cinematographer Bruce Douglas Johnson. Editor Richard Pearson. Music Michael Tavera. Costumes Terry Dresbach. Production designer Richard Toyon. Art director Jim Donahue. Set designer Betty Krul. Set decorator Karen Agresti. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
In limited release.