One of the most notable things about Verplanck, the rather
seedy little burg in upstate New York where Nick Gomez’s black
comedy is set, is that everybody drives a Yugo (the reason,
we’re told, is that it was once chosen as a test site for the
car). This proves a fairly apt metaphor for the entire flick,
which–like that clunky vehicle–is a pretty ramshackle affair,
moving along rather slowly and clumsily. Still, it gets where
it’s going and delivers some dark humor in the process, even
if it treats its set of oddball characters with more haughty
condescension than good-natured affection.

“Drowning Mona” is a comic murder mystery peopled by individuals
of the grossly white-trash variety. The piece is set in motion
when the town harridan, Mona (Bette Midler at her most shrewish),
drives over a cliff and perishes. The town’s amiable police
chief (Danny DeVito), a Broadway show-tune fan (although that’s
a character trait that’s quickly dropped), suspects foul play.
The problem is that there are too many suspects: Mona’s battered
husband (Willim Fichtner) and one-handed, boobish son (Marcus
Thomas), along with the over-the-hill waitress they both have
eyes for (Jamie Lee Curtis); the son’s excessively timid
partner in a landscaping business (Casey Affleck) and his live-
in fiance (Neve Campbell), who also happens to be the chief’s
daughter; and assorted other townspeople. As the plot thickens,
or sickens (depending on your point of view), we’re also
introduced to a sex-obsessed undertaker (Will Ferrell), a
female mechanic with a masculine mien (Kathleen Wilhoite), an
alcoholic priest (Raymond O’Connor), a local layabout (Tracey
Walter), a bartender who’s protective of his brother (Mark
Pellegrino), and the chief’s trio of bumbling Keystone Cops
(Peter Dobson, Paul Ben-Victor and Paul Schultze). Along the
way to an extremely contorted, and rather silly, denouement,
the various characters careen about their business, occasionally
offering “Rashomon”-like recollections of past incidents
involving Mona but mostly abusing or misunderstanding one
another in comically complicated ways.

Clearly writer Peter Steinfeld and director Gomez were aiming
for a sort of whacked-out, kaleidoscopic effect, akin to what
was achieved in 1986’s “Ruthless People” (which also featured
Midler and DeVito) or–on a much more elevated level–in
“Fargo.” Their efforts are hindered, however, by the sometimes
chaotic nature of the writing, which never makes all the strands
hang together, and a desultory quality to the direction, which
is sometimes assured and nimble but more often a trifle flaccid.

The picture does, however, allow you to watch some fine
performers enjoying themselves slumming, as it were. Midler
shrieks abrasively, while DeVito is nicely laid-back. Even
better are Affleck, whose nerdiness is quite appealing, and
Campbell, who seems to like getting away from her goody-two-
shoes image. Curtis can’t quite conceal her glamor, but
Fichtner is appropriately slimy, and Dobson earns some chuckles
as a handsomer version of Barney Fife. The one cast member,
in fact, who never really convinces is Thomas, whose scraggly
obtuseness is too obviously calculated to work.

“Drowning Mona” is a movie which, as a whole, never quite equals
the sum of its parts, but in its shambling, goofily nasty way
it manages to generate some solid laughs as it lurches to a
close. You might be a tad ashamed to be chortling at some of
the stuff happening onscreen, but you probably won’t be able to
stop yourself.