Drowning Mona (2000)


One of the essential principles of reviewing movies that ought to go without saying but that often does need to be said is that you have to review the movie they made, not the movie you wish they’d made. You were hoping 21 Jump Street would be a straightforward adaptation of the TV drama, which you loved; instead it’s a broad comedy. Do you automatically give it a bad review? No. You review it based on how well it works as a broad comedy. “Review the movie they made, not the movie you wish they’d made” is just a restatement of another obvious truth: you have to judge a film on its own terms. No fair criticizing Airplane! for not being realistic, or Schindler’s List for not being funny, or Toy Story for not having enough sex.

I bring it up because I think I kinda blew it with my review of Drowning Mona, a film from March 2000 that tanked at the box office and got mostly bad reviews. (It has a 29% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.) The basic premise — a woman everyone hated is murdered, making everyone a suspect — suggested potential for a dark, macabre comedy, which I love. Danny DeVito, a veteran of black comedies (Throw Momma from the Train, The War of the Roses), was the star and executive producer, and his Ruthless People cohort Bette Midler was onboard too. I was expecting — hoping for — something along those lines. I don’t remember whether I’d seen the trailer beforehand, but if I had, it probably would have contributed to those expectations.

And then Drowning Mona wasn’t like that. It was a dark comedy about an awful woman whose death was celebrated by all the amoral dipsticks in her town, sure. But it moved slowly instead of frenetically, and didn’t go as dark as I wanted it to. I lost all patience with its variety of quirky humor. I panned it.

What I said then:

“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 [is killed]…. The problem is, there’s not a single person in town who didn’t have a motive. Fun, right? Well, yeah, could have been…. 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)…. 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…. 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…. 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.” Grade: D- [Read the whole review.]

That last line — “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” — I regret that. Oh, it’s a good line, and it made for a catchy Rotten Tomatoes pull-quote. But it didn’t apply to this movie. It didn’t even jibe with the rest of the review, which suggested the movie wasn’t aggressively bad enough to be worth hating. I should have saved the line for a movie that deserved it, like Bad Boys II.

The re-viewing:

Having given the film very little thought since that first viewing 12 years ago, and having heard people mention it only rarely, I had no reason to doubt that I would still dislike it when I watched it a second time. There is no Drowning Mona cult following that I am aware of. It never gets included on lists of overlooked or underrated gems.

Yet right from the start I was mildly intrigued. The film is set in the town that Yugo supposedly used as its test market in the ’80s, so everyone drives 15-year-old Yugos with personalized plates. This is the first information the movie gives us — and then it never comes up again. Nobody so much as says the word “Yugo.” The make of automobile never figures into the plot. It’s a purely random, extraneous detail, and it’s there for entirely no reason. I admire that sort of thing, in moderation.

Then there’s the cast, which has more appealing stars than I remembered. DeVito, Midler, Neve Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis, William Fichtner, Casey Affleck (blond, for some reason), Will Ferrell — how had I forgotten that Will Ferrell was in this?? Plus Mark Pellegrino (Jacob on Lost) and a brief appearance by Melissa McCarthy. Not that a good cast automatically makes for a good movie, but it might prevent you from dismissing it out of hand.

Re-watching it all these years later, I realize it isn’t terrible; it just isn’t what I wanted it to be. It lopes along at a leisurely pace, punctuated by occasional bursts of mania, and it tells a fairly decent whodunit comedy mystery. (One significant plot hole remains: Everyone knows Mona was driving her son’s car when she died, but it’s very late in the film before anyone puts two and two together and realizes this means her son was the intended target, not her.) Instead of grating on me, the film’s quirkiness — which rarely draws attention to itself — amused me. I said in 2000 that “it’s like they came up with a bunch of wacky details, but forgot to put a movie around them.” Now that doesn’t bother me. The “wacky details” (which are generally too understated to be “wacky”) have the pleasant whiff of good-natured oddness about them.

It’s worth pointing out that I still didn’t laugh very much. But it’s also worth pointing out that I didn’t roll my eyes or sigh with exhaustion very much either. That is to say, few of the jokes fall flat. They either succeed, or they pass by harmlessly. It’s a game full of base hits, a couple doubles, no home runs — but few embarrassing strikeouts.

My original review basically said as much. I wrote: “It’s not that the film tries to be funny and fails. It’s more that it really doesn’t even try.” On second viewing, I see that I should have taken that line of thought further. What the movie does try to do is establish an eccentric little world full of eccentric little people, several of whom are intentionally unlikable yet fun to watch. On those terms, the movie succeeds well enough. Who says a dark comedy has to be an all-out madcap farce? Nobody, that’s who.

Do I still hate this movie?

Nope. The laid-back vibe and cheerfully grim humor are engaging, if not often laugh-out-loud funny. I enjoy the peculiarity of it all: the breezy randomness, the unassuming attitude. I suspect the filmmakers would feel like they’ve succeeded if you came out of it with a puzzled half-smile on your face and said, “Well, that was odd.” The fact that that’s all the movie wants out of us makes it that much more unusual. Grade: B-

— Film.com