‘Drowning Mona’ spared by good acting, script

Greg Jerrett

Since “Fargo,” every couple of years we see someone else’s version of what the Coen brothers did so well. Some might dismiss these quirky films about quirky people in special places as bland imitations, but far from being derivative, these movies get back to what great story telling is about — where you’re from and what you know.

Any writer/director bold enough to set his film outside the tried and true and dull as dirt locations of L.A. and Manhattan deserves points for trying.

“Drowning Mona” is set in Verplanck, N.Y., a small town north of Manhattan. It has the distinction of being the American town where the Yugoslavian wonder car Yugo was tested. This story is told during that test, and while everyone in Verplanck drives a Yugo, it isn’t explicitly pointed out in the film or turned into a constantly recurring sight gag.

Rather, the Yugos just become part of the scenery.

“Drowning Mona” is a twitchy, little murder mystery in which the title character dies in the first three minutes. Not everyone is suspected of killing the nasty Mona Dearly (Bette Midler), but everyone is glad she’s dead.

There is nothing quite so beautiful as watching a banana yellow Yugo fall 100 feet into a crystal lake.

Casey Affleck plays Bobby Calzone, a quiet man of boyish qualities looking to take care of his fianc‚, Ellen Rash (Neve Campbell). His life is one long cringe-ridden hell because his landscaping business partner, Phil Dearly, is Mona’s son.

Phil is a worthless piece of humanity. He is lazy, drunk and kills the occasional dog. He is literally single-handedly killing the business. Bobby cannot dissolve their partnership because Mona won’t allow it. He is trapped like a rat with no way out. Or is he?

Danny DeVito plays Chief Wyatt Rash. He is Bobby’s soon-to-be father-in-law and the man responsible for solving this crime.

William Fichter (“Armageddon,” “Albino Alligator”) plays Phil Dearly, the brutally hen-pecked, battered husband of Mona. Fichter is wonderfully creepy in this film as he is in so many others. He has a way of playing everything in the spectrum from right-stuff astronauts to murderous rednecks right on the money.

The film isn’t a visual stunner. There is virtually no concentration on raising the cinematographic bar. In fact, it could just have easily been shot for television as for the big screen. Besides the opening shot of Mona’s Yugo flying through the air, nothing stands out as worth looking at.

This is unfortunate, because films where the location is important need great shots that make you feel like you are right there. The Coens are great at letting their audience know right where they are and how it feels to be there.

Apparently, director Nick Gomez didn’t see the need.

Luckily, the script and the acting more than makes up for this weakness. “Drowning Mona” is an understated flick with little in the way of mindless spectacle and stunning visuals to entertain the short-attention span crowd. But the performances and dialogue make the film well worth the effort.

Affleck plays the hapless Bobby with understated proficiency. It is nothing less than a full-scale screw job that Affleck isn’t featured on the movie poster or giving proper billing. If his brother had played this part, it would have been his movie. This is Casey Affleck’s movie.

His character is central to the entire film, and he has more screen time than all the others combined. The poster for this thing looks like a battle of the egos. Neve Campbell, Danny DeVito, Bette Midler and Jamie Lee Curtis pose dressed to the nines in exactly the opposite way they appear in the film. It’s disgusting and misleading.

The movie’s good. Go see it.

4 Stars

Greg Jerrett is a graduate student in English from Council Bluffs.