By Kyle Decker
July 3rd, 2023
Drowning Mona is a largely forgotten comedy crime film from the year 2000. It was poorly received by critics at the time and bombed with audiences as well. Most lambasted it as overly quirky and dry. The consensus was that its offbeatness was just off. Personally, I have always had a soft spot for it. Even all the way back then. Then again, my sense of humor tends to be downright Saharan. I rewatched it after something like eighteen years recently and was surprised at how much of it I remembered. I think the offbeat quirkiness of it wasn’t something that really caught on until a few years later. It’s an underrated gem in my opinion and worth reevaluation. We’ll open with a quick refresher, investigate why it was so hated, and then clear its name with what makes it work.
For those who are unfamiliar or have put it out of your minds, the movie is a whodunnit revolving around the death of Verplank, New York resident Mona Dearly (Bette Milder). Mona dies in a car accident when her brakes fail, sending her car into the Hudson River. Local police chief Wyatt Rash (Danny DeVito) suspects foul play when he notices a lack of skid marks on the road. What becomes quickly apparent is that Mona was a terrible person, hated by everybody (with good cause), and just about everyone in town is a suspect. Her husband, Phil (William Fichtner), and son Jeph (Marcus Thomas), were both physically and emotionally abused by her. She constantly bullied Jeph’s business partner Bobby Calzone (Casey Affleck). Local waitress Rona (Jamie Lee Curtis) was having an affair with Phil. And she’d had a violent or unpleasant encounter with everyone else. Even the cops, save the chief, seem willing to write it off as a case of “Ding dong the witch is dead.” Hilarity ensues.
Okay, well, not so much “hilarity.” At least not in the slapping your knee while struggling to breathe sense. It’s dry. Really dry. It’s offbeat, quirky, and dark. And, to hear it from turn-of-the-century critics and audiences, off-puttingly so. Hell, occasionally it’s downright mean-spirited. Its Rotten Tomato consensus currently reads:
“A whodunnit that stacks its lists of suspects with wasted character actors, Drowning Mona is a twee farce that will prompt audiences to tune out before the mystery is solved.”
It sits at 28% from critics and 46% from audiences. Brutal. Both audiences and critics echo the sentiment that it is “boring” and “unfunny.” “Too dark” comes up a few times when digging through both professional and audience reviews. Obviously, humor is the single most subjective of the abstract concepts, and I would never be so crass as to argue that Drowning Mona (or anything for that matter) is for everybody. It’s pretty damn niche. And this was exponentially true nearly a quarter of a century ago. If you take a look at the top-grossing comedies of 2000 the top 4 include (in order):
- Meet the Parents – $161,325,490
- Scary Movie – $151,019,771
- Nutty Professor II: The Klumps – $123,307,945
- Big Momma’s House – $117,559,438
Nothing after that comes close to cracking nine figures. #5 was The Kid, the Disney movie with Bruce Wliis, which raked in just below $70 mil, on its heels was Road Trip. Crass and cringe were the name of the game back then. Hell, two of them involve fat suits and cross-dressing. Drowning Mona sits at #24 with $15,247,192. Just below the similarly quirky but better-received (critically) Best in Show. But, from a box office standpoint, quirk or “twee” wasn’t selling then. But it was just around the corner. In some ways, Drowning Mona was simply ahead of its time.
In 2000 quirk was very niche. Quirk, of course, by its very nature, lends itself to nicheness. So much so that the line borders on synonymity. This was even more true at the turn of the century. Sure there were quirky movies in the 60s and 70s. But quirk was definitely not in vogue in the late 90s and 2000 like it was in the years that followed. So let’s call this “neo-quirk”. By 2000, Wes Anderson only had two movies under his belt. 1998’s Rushmore was quirky, sure, but Anderson was still a year out from fully finding his voice in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums. I would argue that the rise of neo-quirk hit with Napoleon Dynamite in 2004. Napoleon Dynamite started as a bit of a cult movie. I remember being one of very few people in the theater and my friends and I were the only ones laughing. Of course, once it hit DVD its popularity exploded. People everywhere quoted it ad nauseam. You could buy T-shirts with quotes and characters on them at the mall. Hardly a day would go by that you didn’t see someone in a “Vote for Pedro” t-shirt. Both are offbeat, (arguably) slow-moving films, with an eccentric ensemble cast of quirky characters. Mean Girls, also in 2004, is a quirk-fest (penned by Tina Fey), and actually cracked the top five that year. Although it did have a bigger budget than Drowning Mona or Napoleon Dynamite, which were relatively low-budget indies.
Granted, similarly quirky movies of the very late 90s and 2000 were better received critically (Best in Show is a better movie than Drowning Mona), I still think both of these movies were ahead of their time. Offbeat was still, for many, off-putting. But in recent years this is what has driven some of the most popular television shows. Mind you a lot more are taking notes from Christopher Guest’s Best in Show. The Office, Parks and Rec, and Modern Family all cribbed the whole mockumentary approach. Which is a great framing device for a story that allows the audience to encounter a wide variety of colorful characters. As does a murder mystery. Both genres involve interviewing a wide variety of people, giving the respective actors an opportunity to create off-the-wall personas
So, other movies were doing quirk, some doing it better, but there is one thing that Drowning Mona does that other quirky films weren’t doing then. Despite its soft-bright color palette, the movie is actually pretty dark. It is a murder mystery, after all. And the victim in question was an abusive alcoholic. And even with movies like Best in Show and Napoleon Dynamite whose characters are all eccentric weirdos, they’re at least endearingly eccentric weirdos. Most of the characters are pretty reprehensible, actually. Even Bobby (Affleck), who really does seem like a put-upon nice guy, does get insufferably spineless and whiny. Affleck pulls it off far too well. But I would say that’s part of what makes the movie work. And the actors don’t disappoint. Jeph is every guy you’re glad you stopped talking to after high school. Just a lazy, drunken scumbag. Thompson nails it. If Fichtner wasn’t so great at playing an asshole, watching Phil get cracked upside the head with a cast iron skillet by his drunk wife in a flashback, his line immediately after about being a battered husband, wouldn’t be as funny.
Speaking of the flashbacks, this is Bette Milder at her most unhinged. She goes all in as Mona Dearly. Her performance is over-the-top and out-of-the-park. You really get why half of this town wanted her dead, and why most of the police force are willing to just let it slide. Although in a flashback to a knife-throwing contest, Midler is able to briefly bring just the slightest bit of pathos to Mona. Her heartbreak at losing is very real, but also in line with the sociopathic narcissism she displays throughout. She’s able to walk this line of making you feel pity, without making you feel bad for her. Which, by definition, is seemingly a contradiction. But pity can also elicit disgust, and she crushes it. And those used to seeing Danny DeVito as Frank in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia know that he’s no stranger to black comedy, but will be shocked to see him play the straight man.
As for its humor, yeah, that martini might be a little dry for some palettes. It’s an acquired taste, and one that even fewer had acquired in the year 2000 (I might be showing my age, but I hear that old Conan O’Brien bit every time I type that). Phil is consistently into playing the Wheel of Fortune home version as a means of foreplay, for example. The very fact that every single car in town, with the exception of landscaping pickups and a tow truck, are Yugos is a hilarious production design choice. Funnier that it’s based on the fact that in 1985, the Zastava automotive company did, in fact, test market its ill-fated car in rural New York. Jeph’s malapropisms, Will Ferrall’s cameo as Cubby, a mortician/erotic photographer. There’s even a bizarre little nod to Rashomon as Jeph and Bobby give two wildly different accounts of the same argument Bobby had with the Dearly family. Both accounts differ in who was the one who killed a dog with a lawn mower and whether or not Bobby said (to Jeph) “You tore my overalls” or “I’ll tear out your ovaries.” To which a confused Chief Rash says “He said…’ovaries’?” “Oh, yeah. All the time,” replies Jeph. It’s all very weird and none of it laugh-out-loud. Some of it is even funnier later. Some of it is only funny later. It’s kinda hard to explain. It’s either your sense of humor or it’s not, but, I would argue that more people have that sense of humor now than they did nearly a quarter of a century ago. Jesus. What did I put it that way for?
That said, given that quirky movies like Napoleon Dynamite, Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, etc, followed in the years after to more accolades, I’d say the Drowning Mona deserves a reevaluation. In fact, if you look at reviews on Rotten Tomatoes from the last couple of years, they are far more favorable. At the very least, it deserves cult status. But then again, I was one of the dark, twisted, offbeat weirdos that actually liked it when it came out.
Also, I had a pretty big crush on Neve Campbell.