`Mona' is awash in lowbrow humor

March 03, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Fans of lowbrow humor who find "What Planet Are You From?" too highfalutin' may want to try "Drowning Mona," a murder caper that could have been written by Agatha Christie during a pub-crawl.

When Mona Dearly (Bette Midler) mysteriously drives her car over a cliff and drowns, the citizens of Verplanck, N.Y., are initially elated. But when town police chief Wyatt Rash (Danny DeVito) begins to investigate, they soon begin to eye one another suspiciously. Mona was the most disliked woman in town, but who hated her enough to kill her?

A better question turns out to be, "Who cares? The witch is dead -- let's party!" In this trashy black comedy (think "Rashomon" by way of "Pink Flamingos"), it turns out that Mona had humiliated, abused, assaulted or threatened nearly everyone in Verplanck, including her henpecked husband Phil (William Fichtner), a mild-mannered landscaper named Bobby (Casey Affleck), his fiancee Ellen (Neve Campbell) and Rona, a hard-bitten coffee shop waitress (Jamie Lee Curtis) who was sneaking away to play "Wheel of Fortune" and maybe other things with Phil at a local motel.

Written with good humor by Peter Steinfeld and directed at a good clip by Nick Gomez ("Laws of Gravity," "New Jersey Drive"), "Drowning Mona" is a sordid, seedy and altogether guilty pleasure, made even more watchable by players who sportingly lower themselves to the occasion.

With his blond bangs and peach-fuzz complexion, Affleck looks exactly like the guy who mowed your lawn back in 1967, and he exudes the same ineffable air of sexiness and innocence. (The sunny, anachronistic flavor of "Drowning Mona" is echoed in a soundtrack culled from 1970s Top 40 hits.)

Curtis proves herself to be the bravest woman in Hollywood: an actress unafraid to age gracelessly on screen (at least here), delivering a tart, brittle performance. "I'm a 33-year-old waitress at a diner that doesn't encourage tipping," she says at one point, and one look at her thin line of a mouth backs her up.

As the Broadway musical-loving Chief Rash, DeVito makes a lovable moral center in an otherwise wildly askew moral universe; filmgoers may be surprised to learn he has relatively few scenes with Midler, who appears mainly in flashbacks.

Perhaps the most spookily spot-on portrayal here is from Marcus Thomas, who plays Mona's beloved son Jeff with the perpetually agape expression of a born loser. Of all the terrific performances in this junkyard version of "Murder on the Orient Express," his is the most amusingly -- and terrifyingly -- true.

`Drowning Mona'

Starring Danny DeVito, Bette Midler, Casey Affleck, Neve Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis Directed by Nick Gomez

Rated PG-13 (some thematic elements, language and brief sexuality)

Running time 90 minutes

Released by Destination Films

Sun score * * *

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