Drowning Mona

While some movies are so obnoxious they seem to sit on your head and relieve themselves, “Drowning Mona” merely sits on your head and does nothing. But rest assured, it DOES sit on your head, and you WON’T like it.

The premise suggests black humor and outrageous possibilities. In the small, white-trash town of Verplanck, N.Y., a loathsome woman named Mona Dearly (a dour and ugly Bette Midler) drives her car over a cliff and into the river. The brakes appear to have been tampered with, making it murder. The problem is, there’s not a single person in town who DIDN’T have a motive.

Fun, right? Well, yeah, could have been. Through flashbacks and stories told by the townsfolk, we see various run-ins she had with people, suggesting that soon everyone will be a suspect. But then that tack is abandoned, and the focus turns slowly (everything happens slowly here) to Bobby Calzone (Casey Affleck), who was most picked on by Mona and who ran a landscaping company with her deadbeat son Jeff (Marcus Thomas) — and who, it would seem, was actually the one to do the deed.

This presents some sticky situations. Bobby’s about to marry Ellen (Neve Campbell), daughter of Chief of Police Wyatt Rash (Danny DeVito). Rash doesn’t want his son-in-law a convict, but justice must be served, too.

Meanwhile, Mona’s husband Phil (William Fichtner) has been having a “Wheel of Fortune”-based affair with local waitress Rona (Jamie Lee Curtis). If this comes to light, it will make him look even more suspicious.

Verplanck is meant to be a slow, quiet town, and “Drowning Mona” takes those qualities to the extreme, bringing us frustratingly bad pacing (the No. 1 killer of potential comedy, as you know). Once we know (or think we know) Bobby is the killer, shouldn’t the cops find some clues and eventually unravel things? Sure, in a good movie. In this one, we’re half-way into it before anyone even makes the connection that yeah, the brakes were tampered with — but she was driving her son’s car, which means whoever did it was actually trying to kill Jeff. We realize this immediately; the morons of Verplanck (and the morons who made the movie) practically ignore it.

I gave it another chance:

4/11/2012: Re-Views: ‘Drowning Mona’ (2000)

Director Nick Gomez and writer Peter Steinfeld have mistaken quirkiness for humor. They figure if everyone in town is odd in some Coen Brothers way, and if they say weird things, and if there are non-sequiturs all over the place, it will add up to hilarity.

So we have a priest who’s always drunk. Mona’s headstone accidentally says “demoted” instead of “devoted.” The landscaping company’s truck has a sign saying they handle “lawn, hedges, snow, stuff.” Chief of Police Rash loves Broadway musicals and refers to them whenever possible. Jeff only has one hand. A fisherman who witnessed Mona’s river plunge describes it in poetic terms. Everyone in the town — including the cops — drives a Yugo. Someone telling a story mis-heard “overalls” as “ovaries.” It’s like they came up with a bunch of wacky details, but forgot to put a movie around them.

It’s not that the film tries to be funny and fails. It’s more that it really doesn’t even try. Hating it with full passion would be like hating a retarded kid.

What saves “Drowning Mona” from getting an F? Casey Affleck’s Bobby character is dull-witted and meandering, like the film itself — but there’s something vaguely interesting about his high-pitched mumbling. There are also, as I recall, two solid laughs spread out over the 91 minutes of the film.

This, however, does NOT mean you should see it. In fact, if you pay money to see this movie, thus supporting and encouraging the people responsible for it, I will come to your house and hit you.

D- (; PG-13, moderate profanity, vulgarity, one non-graphic sex scene.)

In 2012, I reconsidered this movie for my Re-Views column at Film.com.