"Drowning Mona" is a white-trash black comedy, a caustic working-class whodunit in which the solution to the murder mystery takes a distant back seat to countless barbs and jibes tossed in the direction of the mostly imbecilic cast of characters. Pic is cuttingly funny at its best but sometimes strained and a bit soft by the end.

“Drowning Mona” is a white-trash black comedy, a caustic working-class whodunit in which the solution to the murder mystery takes a distant back seat to countless barbs and jibes tossed in the direction of the mostly imbecilic cast of characters. Cuttingly funny at its best but sometimes strained and a bit soft by the end, this extremely well-cast Destination picture could scoop up decent initial coin by virtue of coming out in wide release against light competition March 3, much in the fashion of distrib’s most recent title, “Eye of the Beholder.” But it will need strong promo to carve out a profile, especially with younger viewers, for whom the similarly bilious 1986 Danny DeVito/Bette Midler hit “Ruthless People” is a non-memory.

The majority of the mordant humor in Peter Steinfeld’s determinedly nasty screenplay is rooted in its characters, and the characters who live in the Hudson Valley hick town of Verplanck, N.Y., are almost all aggressively clueless types who make significant contributions to lowering the average national IQ and annual income levels.

First tipoff to Verplanck’s special status is an opening title informing the audience that the town was once a test market for the intro of the ultra-cheap Yugo car in the U.S. Sure enough, everyone in town is still driving these tin cans on wheels, and the vehicle lives up to its death-trap rep in the very first scene, as Mona Dearly (Midler) loses her brakes and careens off a cliff into the Hudson (which looks an awfully lot like a lake in this Southern California-lensed production).

With a tip of the hat to Agatha Christie, yarn’s big joke is that everyone is a suspect in Mona’s demise because, as numerous first-person flashbacks illustrate, she was truly the wicked witch of the East, a heinous person who terrorized the town, a verbally and physically abusive monster about whom everyone has a horror story. As mild-mannered police chief Wyatt Rash (DeVito) makes the rounds in his casual, methodical investigation, it soon becomes clear that any number of people could have had a motive to kill the old battle-ax, and while everyone admits to having hated Mona, no one, of course, will fess up to having done the deed.

First among equals in the town’s lineup of dim bulbs is Mona’s stub-armed son, Jeff (Marcus Thomas), a beer-guzzling cretin who would have been right at home in “Fargo” and whose mean streak is second only to his late mother’s. Jeff works as the landscaping partner of blond pretty boy Bobby Calzone (Casey Affleck), who’s pretty dense himself but has managed to capture the heart of Chief Rash’s cute but self-absorbed daughter, Ellen (Neve Campbell), to whom he’s engaged.

Then there’s Mona’s long-suffering widower, Phil (William Fichtner), a cowering Milquetoast who insists to Rash that he was “a battered husband” but is a particularly suspicious character because he’s long been involved with the local diner’s sexy, hard-bitten waitress, Rona (Jamie Lee Curtis), who’s been two-timing him with Jeff, of all people. Among the other principals who come to figure in the intrigue are strutting cop Feege (Peter Dobson), resourceful auto mechanic Lucinda (Kathleen Wilhoite) and snooping old coot Clarence (Tracey Walter).

Pic maintains a moderately bracing amusement quotient while the baseness of the characters is being sketched in, often via slashing flashbacks. Particularly funny, for instance, are the various versions of how Jeff lost his hand; regardless of how it was actually lopped off, it always involved his reaching for a beer, heedless of where the bottle may have been. Pic also gets good mileage out of Bobby and Jeff’s endlessly argumentative working relationship, as well as from the comically repetitive way Mona is seen to have escalated every little dispute into World War III.

Forward momentum gradually slows down over the distance, however, and once the murderer is identified, viewer interest dwindles as things get wrapped up in perfunctory, overly convenient fashion.

Since making his name with the gritty “Laws of Gravity” and following up with the impressive but more problematic “New Jersey Drive” and “Illtown,” director Nick Gomez has been on hiatus from features for four years, during which he has done acclaimed work on the cutting-edge TV series “Homicide,” “Oz” and “The Sopranos.” “Mona” thus reps a stylistic departure from his grim, in-your-face earlier work, and while the film sometimes feels as though it’s trying too hard, Gomez nonetheless extracts potent comedy from the material’s more outrageous situations and displays a sure hand with his talented cast.

Newcomer Thomas makes a big impression as a belligerently dim-witted Jeff, and Curtis has a field day playing a nail-tough rock ‘n’ roll chick none too happy with the knowledge that life has passed her by. DeVito, for once, is an island of calm in an ocean of choppy waters, while Midler is every bit the walking fright show Mona’s meant to be.

Fichtner amusingly portrays a man whose life no one would envy, Affleck is duly ambiguous as a spineless weasel who’s gotten by on his sweet looks, Campbell comes off appealingly as a girl who unfortunately inherited only some of her father’s sense but a full share of his distraction, while Wilhoite is a gas as the most competent person in town, and one who dimly awakens Ellen to something she never knew about herself.

Except for the occasional views of mountains, L.A.-area locations serve reasonably well for the Eastern settings. Production values are clearly budget-minded but acceptable.

Drowning Mona

Production

A Destination Films release of a Neverland Films/Jersey Shore production. Produced by Al Corley, Bart Rosenblatt, Eugene Musso. Executive producers, Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Jonathan Weisgal. Directed by Nick Gomez. Screenplay, Peter Steinfeld.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color, Technicolor prints), Bruce Douglas Johnson; editor, Richard Pearson; music, Michael Tavera; music supervisor, Gwen Bethel; production designer, Richard Toyon; set designer, Betty Krul; set decorator, Karen Agresti; costume designer, Terry Dresbach; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Mark Weingarten; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Jeff Kushner; second unit director, Maura Naughton; second unit camera, Bengt Jonsson; casting, Monika Mikkelsen. Reviewed at Raleigh Studios, L.A., Feb. 23, 2000. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Chief Wyatt Rash - Danny DeVito Mona Dearly - Bette Midler Ellen Rash - Neve Campbell Rona Mace - Jamie Lee Curtis Bobby Calzone - Casey Affleck Phil Dearly - William Fichtner Jeff Dearly - Marcus Thomas Feege - Peter Dobson Lucinda - Kathleen Wilhoite Clarence - Tracey Walter Tony Carlucci - Paul Ben-Victor Jimmy D - Paul Schulze Murph - Mark Pellegrino Father Tom - Raymond O'Connor Cubby - Will Farrell Valerie - Lisa Rieffel
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