Film Reviews

Redneck Mystery Theater

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 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 finestŠ umŠ 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, New York, a backwater's backwater, where the omnipresent Yugo was originally test-marketed. Mona delivers the movie's first line of dialogue ("UghŠ 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 oddfellow 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 -- a mystery replete with incongruous flashbacks, which screenwriter Peter Steinfeld 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, as, from initial splashdown to closing credits, Drowning Mona remains consistent in its own priorities, to wit: one, the nonstop onslaught of splendidly absurd character tics; two, the constant reminder that this is Danny DeVito's world, and the rest of us are merely squatting in it; and three, 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 versus 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, as the foul Mona was easily Verplanck's least popular citizen.

Enter the array of homespun caricatures. The aforementioned son, stump-armed, genetically slighted Jeff (Marcus Thomas), 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. Soft-spoken Bobby is consistently harangued by both the dullard Jeff 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), has been sneaking out for covert sessions of dirty Wheel of Fortune with career waitress Rona Mace (Jamie Lee Curtis), whose Susie Quattro coiffure and teardrop shades have made her as desirable to son as to father.

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 wanna-be Lucinda (Kathleen Wilhoite).

So how funny is Drowning Mona? First, remember that this isŠ uhŠ cinema here. In other words, any and all humor is accentuated by the fact that you'll be sitting in the dark, avidly awaiting doses of levity. Unlike television comedy -- which allows you, if dissatisfied, to surf or get a snack or simply switch the bastard off -- movie comedy is designed for a captive audience, who would rather laugh at anything than admit they have wasted their money and time. With that in mind, this 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 (and brave ones to dredge up that maddening "Popcorn" single of yesteryear). 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 out that "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, as 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. 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 has 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.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Gregory Weinkauf