There's an old joke about Bette Davis ruminating on the death of Joan Crawford. "My mother taught me to never speak ill of the dead," Davis memorializes. "Joan Crawford's dead. Good!"
The sentiment is shared by the townspeople of Verplanck, N.Y., when they receive word of the untimely, watery demise of town harridan Mona Dearly (Bette Midler), the title corpse of "Drowning Mona." But unlike that winningly sick gag, the film -- which attempts to mine the same black-comic terrain as "Ruthless People" and There's Something About Mary -- seldom inspires the guilty chuckles it shoots for.
Over the opening credits, we witness the obviously cranky Mona jump into her son's Yugo and comically plunge into the Hudson River, a victim of brake failure. Verplanck, it seems, was selected by Yugo as a test market, and all of the town's residents were supplied with cars of their own. That amusing premise is one of the many quirky scenarios that "Drowning Mona" throws out but does little with. Police chief Wyatt Rash (Danny DeVito) is given the somewhat annoying trait of being a show-tune aficionado, but the joke, like most in the film, is humorous on the first go-'round and redundant thereafter.
Though she's seen only in flashbacks after the credits have rolled, Midler's foul-mouthed Mona also suffers from overkill. Taking on the role of a white-trash mama suits the actress well, but her character's nastiness tends to grow tiresome.
The flashback technique, which is intended to explain to the viewer why virtually everyone in town had an interest in seeing Mona dead, is also a major factor in the film's downfall. Having to piece the crime together after the fact allows for the build-up of very little momentum. By the time the true culprits are revealed, one could frankly care less.
The list of prime suspects includes Mona's milquetoast husband, Phil (William Fichtner); his waitress mistress, Rona (Jamie Lee Curtis); Mona's one-handed son, Jeff (Marcus Thomas); the lazy Jeff's landscaping-business partner, Bobby Calzone (Casey Affleck); and Bobby's girlfriend, Ellen (Neve Campbell), who also happens to be the police chief's daughter.
Curtis basically walks through her role, displaying little of the comic timing she's capable of delivering. The usually likable Campbell barely registers either, and Affleck -- with his high-pitched monotone voice and bleached-blonde locks -- proves once and for all that he is merely riding on the coattails of his older brother, Ben.
Director Nick Gomez, who is best known for directing episodes of HBO's "The Sopranos" and "Oz," was able to attract DeVito to this small film as both star and executive producer; the ensuing boost to Gomez's budget made it possible for him to sign some more name talent. But big budget or not, "Drowning Mona" was clearly meant to sink rather than swim.