Drowning Mona

Directed by Nick Gomez

In the closing years of the 20th century, lowbrow white America finally learned to enjoy an ironic laugh at itself, led by Hollywood's cheerful mockery of the culturally challenged working class. Outside the system, John Waters had this stuff pegged from the get-go, but the American grotesqueries of the original, John Hughes-penned National Lampoon's Vacation haven't faded a shade, either. Everybody seems to have a favorite; more recently, in addition to the obvious Farrelly phenomenon, movies like Waiting for Guffman and Drop Dead Gorgeous have slowed down the wit-train, allowing their own whipping boys and girls to hop aboard. And let's not forget that mantel of American pride, the home-video shelf, which is rarely observed without its requisite copy of Fargo, although the Coen brothers' earlier, wickedly sweet Raising Arizona provides, arguably, the genre's finest ... um ... hoot.

Drowning Mona, the new comedy from director Nick Gomez (New Jersey Drive, Illtown), seeks to join this cadre of yuk-fests in exploiting the great unwashed. It's ugly, but, fortunately, it slides into its obnoxiousness as fluidly as the Yugo of hideous Mona Dearly (Bette Midler) sinks into the Hudson River. The setting is Verplanck, N.Y., a backwater's backwater where the omnipresent Yugo was originally test-marketed. Mona delivers the movie's first line of dialogue ("Ugh ... shit!") when she discovers that her Yugo (vanity plate: UGOMONA) won't start. She borrows her son's, which swiftly zooms off a cliff and sends her to sleep with the fishes. As local odd fellow Clarence (Tracey Walter) describes the event: "It was tragic and frightening, yet beautiful in an obtuse way." The tone is set.

The movie diverges from its backward forebears, however, in its structure as a mystery, replete with incongruous flashbacks, which screenwriter Peter Steinfield has defined as "the white trash Murder on the Orient Express.... Except for the train, and without it being in Europe." Despite that claim, Dame Agatha needn't pivot so much as a degree in her grave, because, from initial splashdown to closing credits, Drowning Mona remains consistent in its own priorities, to wit: (1) the nonstop onslaught of splendidly absurd character tics; (2) the constant reminder that this is Danny DeVito's world and the rest of us are merely squatting in it; and (3) the casual piecing-together of Mona's timely demise.

DeVito plays Police Chief Wyatt Rash, a congenial keeper of Verplanck's peace, armed with an affinity for show tunes and attended by a posse of giddy, hypersensitive officers. On the telephone at the station, Rash sorts out the relative merits of West Side Story vs. Starlight Express with his cherished daughter, Ellen (Neve Campbell), who is on the verge of marriage. No sooner has she pledged her affection for Xanadu, however, than the word of Mona's sudden death is sprung, and Rash abruptly finds himself sleuthing the case. Complicating matters, there's no shortage of suspects; the foul and pugnacious Mona was easily Verplanck's least-popular citizen.

Enter the array of homespun caricatures. The aforementioned son, stump-armed, genetically slighted Jeff (Marcus Thomas, noteworthy), has suffered for years under his mother's madness. Together with Ellen's flustered fiancé, Bobby Calzone (Casey Affleck), he ekes out a living as a partner in J.B. Landscaping (so named after Mona helpfully squawks that "BJ" is shorthand for a sexual practice). Soft-spoken Bobby is consistently harangued by both the dullard Jeff ("I get half ... and none of that "50 percent' bullshit") and his equally unpleasant mother, who refuses to relinquish her holdings in the company, despite her rotten son's destruction thereof. Meanwhile, Mona's battered husband, Phil (William Fichtner, permed, mutton-chopped and looking genuinely spent), has been sneaking out for covert sessions of dirty Wheel of Fortune with career waitress Rona Mace (Jamie Lee Curtis), whose Suzy Quattro coiffure and teardrop shades have made her as desirable to son as to father within the Dearly household.

Got all that? Well, don't sweat it, although there is a lot more involved, including the dubious actions of poker-faced Deputy Feege (Peter Dobson), local undertaker and alleged pornographer Cubby (Will Ferrell) and town mechanic/Melissa Etheridge wannabe Lucinda (Kathleen Wilhoite). Even Brian Doyle-Murray, slowly closing in on Gene Hackman for the distinction of appearing in every movie ever made, logs about six or seven frames of screen time and is credited one notch above a dog that gets run over by a lawnmower.

So how funny is Drowning Mona? The movie falls a little short of animated humor like The Simpsons or South Park, but it's nice to report that it easily matches the best moments of Married: With Children or Drew Carey while daring to be weirder than either. It takes smart operators to make quality entertainment this dumb. Although the deadpan eloquence of the dialogue never quite achieves the zenith of Raising Arizona, the overall effect still tickles the same ribs. There is stealthy precision involved when Curtis blurts, "Good luck doesn't happen to people like us! Good luck happens to Madonna!" The movie may seem blithe and silly, but it's not just Drive Momma Off the Cliff; it walks a careful line between mean-spirited mockery (Midler, generously ghastly) and affectionate imitation (DeVito).

With projects as focused as this and the sweetly sung Living Out Loud, DeVito keeps establishing himself as an actor of unassuming gravity. Here, his work is particularly convincing, especially in contrast to Affleck's. The young dude puts in some wry twists and indulges in a very funny flare-up, but his mush-mouthed delivery quickly grows tedious. Still, even his bewildered squire seems undeserving of the abrupt and vicious threat that Rash eventually lays on him. Anyone who's ever tangled with a mawkish girlfriend's insane daddy will tell you exactly how funny that scene isn't. Perhaps that's why, overall, Drowning Mona scores its other chuckles so well: Its trite trash feels authentic enough to make one squirm.

Opens March 3.

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