Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Drowning Mona: Special Edition (2000)
Studio Line: Columbia TriStar - Who wanted to see Mona Dearly dead? Take a number.

After years of driving the town crazy, Mona Dearly (Bette Midler) drove herself into a river. But when this twist of fate turns out to be an act of murder, Chief of Police Wyatt Rash (Danny Devito) has his work cut out for him. The obnoxious Mona is survived by a town full of enemies, aka prime suspects, including her cheating husband (William Fichtner), his mistress (Jamie Lee Curtis), a heartless son (Marcus Thomas), the police chief's daughter (Neve Campbell) and her fiance (Casey Affleck). To know Mona Dearly was to hate her, and the big mystery isn't who would want to see her dead…but who wouldn't. Now, Chief Rash tries to figure out who to blame -- but the town just wants to know who to thank.

Director: Nick Gomez
Cast: Danny DeVito, Bette Midler, Neve Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Casey Affleck, William Fichtner, Marcus Thomas
Box Office: Budget: $16 million. Opening Weekend: $5.802 million. Gross: $15.427 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1; audio English DD 5.1 & Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround; subtitles English, Spanish, French; closed-captioned; double sided - single layered; 28 chapters; rated PG-13; 96 min.; $24.95; street date 7/25/00.
Supplements: Director's Commentary; Deleted Scenes with Director's Commentary; Talent Files; Theatrical Trailers.
Purchase: DVD | Music soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B+/C+

As a loyal long-time fan of The Simpsons, it's been depressing to see the show's decline in recent years. Granted, I've often reacted negatively to new episodes, as the older ones almost always seemed better. However, on second and third viewings, the formerly-new shows displayed their treasures and became beloved.

That isn't happening with the episodes from the last couple of seasons. Oh, every once in a while I'll find one that's pretty good, but most are decidedly flat and mediocre. The frustrating part is that the new shows seem to have all of the appropriate elements; there's not something specific I can mention that appears absent. It's simply a matter of spark and charisma; the older programs had it, while the newer ones feel more like imitation Simpsons.

Which brings me (finally) to Drowning Mona, a movie that struck me in the same manner. On the surface, the film seems like it should be very entertaining. It features some wacky and off-beat characters and goes for unusual situations; all of the seemingly-necessary components are there. However, the entire project lacks any kind of life or spirit; the film seems as though it should be clever and witty, but it simply isn't.

Case in point: one major running gag in the film stems from the fact everyone in town (Verplanck, New York, in this case) drives a Yugo; the plot posits that this was the city in which Yugo test-marketed their cars, so all of the citizens - even the police department - motor around in those tiny buckets of junk.

When that's how a movie begins, you know you're in for a bumpy ride, and it never gets any better. DM starts poorly and remains lame and feeble until the very end. I can imagine that the filmmakers thought this dreck was wacky and nutty, but they were wrong; it's just bland and soulless.

What a waste of talent it is. The last time Danny DeVito and Bette Midler formally worked together was in the brilliant Ruthless People, a film that succeeds in every way DM fails. We waited 14 years for them to match up again and the result is this? Something's wrong with the world. (Midler and DeVito also both appeared in 1995's Get Shorty, but I didn't count it since Midler's role was a cameo.)

DM also features solid actors like Jamie Lee Curtis, William Fichtner, and Neve Campbell, but all are completely wasted in this mess. Someone clearly thought this project had potential, but none can be found in the witless script by Peter Steinfeld. This is the kind of movie that thinks it'd be really wacky if the police chief (DeVito) also loved Broadway musicals. It also goes for easy "dumb guy" laughs by having characters say things like "ovaries" when they mean "overalls". Are we laughing yet? I wasn't; this is trite, pseudo-clever nonsense at its worst.

Drowning Mona is a feeble attempt at an irreverent, clever black comedy that fails in almost all ways. It's not funny, it's not clever, it's not well-made, and the strong cast seems left out in the cold. Yes, I've seen worse movies, but this one wastes talent at an alarming rate.

The DVD:

Drowning Mona appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen edition on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen side was rated for this review. Overall, the picture looks strong, with just a few minor weaknesses.

Sharpness seems consistently tight and detailed, and I witnessed no decided instances of softness or a lack of focus. Moiré effects appear occasionally but rarely, and I also saw some artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. Print flaws included some very light speckling and a few nicks; for the most part, the movie looked clean and fresh.

Colors seemed accurate and solid, with well-reproduced and saturated hues. Black levels were generally deep, though they looked a bit bland at times. Shadow detail tended to be a little overly heavy; definition in low-light scenes remained adequate, but I thought those segments seemed somewhat opaque. Actually, the movie displayed a generally flat appearance at times; it just didn't look as crisp as I'd expect a release from 2000 to seem. Still, the DVD possesses few concrete flaws and earns a solid "B+".

The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack presents a modest but decent soundfield. One wouldn't expect a surround extravaganza for a dark comedy, and one would be correct in that assumption here. Nonetheless, the mix displays decent activity and it feels appropriate for the material. The front spectrum presents modest use of effects and links them between channels nicely, and the surrounds kick in some moderate reinforcement as well. Actually, the Seventies pop/rock songs featured in the soundtrack fare the best, as they spring nicely from all five channels at times and bring life to the mix.

Audio quality appears very good. Dialogue sounds natural and distinct and features no problems related to intelligibility. Effects are crisp and clean with no signs of distortion, and the music seems clear and bright. Both music and effects display some fine bass at times; the soundtrack offers surprisingly tight and deep low end on occasion. Ultimately, it's not ambitious enough to enter "A" territory, but the mix for Drowning Mona merits a strong "B+".

The DVD of Drowning Mona includes an audio commentary from director Nick Gomez, and it's one of the most grating pieces I've ever heard. For the most part, Gomez sticks to the time-honored "he's great/she's great/we're great" remarks that seem to rule commentaries for bad movies (check out Bats for more absurdly self-congratulatory talk). It seemed like most of the track was devoted to praise for the work, which made me wonder a) what movie was Gomez watching, and b) could I see it instead of DM?

Unfortunately, it's patently clear Gomez refers to his own film during the commentary, though how he can think it's so great remains a mystery to me. Or maybe not, as Gomez clearly does not lack for self-confidence and arrogance. My, is this boy full of himself, and he's quite pretentious to boot. He puts all that film-school knowledge to use here, as he often refers to the movie's "Rashomon structure" and makes comparisons between his work and that of some other legendary directors. Kubrick, Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Gomez: which name doesn't fit?

Add to that another annoying trait: the manner in which he introduces many of the actors. For example: "You may have heard of this woman, her name's Jamie Lee Curtis. Apparently she's some sort of Hollywood legend." You see, Gomez has to make sure we know he's a big-time Hollywood artiste who rates big-time Hollywood talent. Gack! I was big-time nauseous by the end of this obnoxious commentary.

We hear more of Gomez during the DVD's four deleted scenes. These last between 50 seconds and three minutes each for a total running time of five minutes, 20 seconds, and they can be watched with or without Gomez's commentary. The scenes themselves are nothing special, although one would definitely have given the film a more perverse tone. Gomez restrains himself better during his remarks here; he mainly sticks to the reasons for the deletions, so I survived them.

Finally we find some of the usual weak "talent files" Columbia-Tristar include on their DVDs; these listings for Gomez and five of the actors provide exceedingly basic details and are almost useless. On the positive side, at least I got to see Gomez, who looks nothing like I'd imagined. The DVD concludes with trailers for Drowning Mona itself plus To Die For, As Good As It Gets, Desert Blue and Wild Things.

Although it looked like it might have had some potential, Drowning Mona turns out to be an almost-total disaster. A fine cast are discarded through this inane, plodding attempt at a black comedy. The DVD offers very good picture and sound plus a few extras that earn points for their inclusion but lose credit for their execution. Leave this clunker for the masochists - use the time you'd spend watching Drowning Mona in a letter-writing campaign to convince Disney to create a solid special edition of Ruthless People, the kind of movie DM thought it could be.

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