by Nick Gomez
there were an Oscar for Best Reaction Shots, the top contender in next year’s
race would have to be Casey Affleck. In Nick Gomez’s agreeably overheated
comedy Drowning Mona, Affleck’s character, a hardworking, sweet-natured
landscape gardener named Bobby Calzone, serves as the eye of a hurricane of
smalltown folly and corruptibility. Since he seems to be the town’s only
model of innocent, upstanding guilelessness, everyone naturally flings their
psychic garbage straight at him. Eventually he’s even suspected of being
a serial killer. And at every new affront, Affleck registers a look as if this
is truly the first time, as if there’s simply no believing that anyone
would do such a thing to him.
Affleck (Ben’s younger
brother) has previously been seen on the margins of films like Good Will
Hunting and Desert Blue, but Drowning Mona establishes him
as a deft comic performer worthy of larger roles. That he’s the film’s
revelation is saying something, too, because the cast here also includes Bette
Midler, Danny DeVito, Neve Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis and a troupe of sharp,
distinctive actors who play the cops, citizens and assorted eccentrics of Verplanck,
NY, a town distinguished only by the fact that everyone in it seems to drive
As the prominence Affleck
achieves in a company of heavyweights might suggest, Drowning Mona is,
in the most appealing sense, an ensemble piece, not a star vehicle–a fact
it cleverly announces by killing off its biggest star in the first scene. Midler
plays the eponymous Mona, whose last name is Dearly (even though, clearly, no
one loves her dearly). As the film opens, she gets into one of her family’s
Yugos, barrels down a nearby hill only to discover that the car’s brakes
don’t work, and does a full gainer straight into the heedless currents
of the Hudson. What a shame for Mona: it’s her last day spreading bile
and misery in the world.
Soon enough police chief
Wyatt Rash (DeVito) is on the scene and his investigation into the condition
of that soggy Yugo turns up the evidence that this wasn’t simply bad driving;
it was foul play. What follows would normally be described as a murder mystery,
except that that form traditionally presumes a victim that the world misses.
Not so Mona. She was an overbearing, foulmouthed shrew whom everyone, her son
and husband included, seems relieved to be rid of. So, instead of asking us
to care about who killed Mona, the film wanders among Verplanck’s thickets
of deceit, amazed that a town of so few people could harbor so many rancid motives.
Mona’s next of kin
would have to be included on any list of suspects. Nasty-tempered, slow-witted
son Jeff (Marcus Thomas) is Bobby Calzone’s partner in a two-man landscaping
business, and he and mom seem to have spent most of their time in the cutthroat
sport of seeing who can heap the most abuse on poor, put-upon Bobby, whom they
despise as a "kiss ass." Mona’s weasely husband Phil (William
Fichtner), meanwhile, has a secret in common with Jeff: they’re both bonking
local waitress Rona (Curtis), a sour would-be rock star whose erotic implements
include a Wheel of Fortune board game.
The rest of the town is
similarly off-kilter. Besides Bobby’s fiancee (Campbell), who spends the
film worried about getting the chicken breasts for her wedding deboned, this
assortment of mixed nuts includes the obligatory alcoholic priest (Raymond O’Connor);
a guitar-strumming lesbian tow-truck owner (Kathleen Wilhoite); a sleazy funeral-home
operator (Will Ferrell); Bobby’s unsupportive bartender brother (Mark Pellegrino),
a posse of ineffectual deputies (Peter Dobson, Paul Schulze, Paul Ben-Victor)
and so on.
This kind of milieu can
be played as anything between venomously acidic satire to bland, cartoony sitcom.
It’s to the credit of Gomez and screenwriter Peter Steinfeld that what
we get here smartly avoids both extremes, instead maintaining an air of loopy
absurdism that’s basically warmhearted yet always skeptical, and that makes
the most of its gallery of performers. The press notes say that Curtis signed
on for the film because the script reminded her of A Fish Called Wanda
(maybe the sequel could be called She Sleeps with a Fish Called Wanda).
Well, Drowning Mona doesn’t score quite as high on the laff-o-meter
as that outre British farce, nor does it improve on the Sturges and Capra models
that also might be invoked. But it’s operating in the same territory with
an educated sense of what it means to be there, which makes for a comic esprit
that’s as intelligent as it goofily determined.
Drowning Mona is
the fourth feature by Gomez, whose ultra-low-budget 1992 debut Laws of Gravity
was a snarling New York street drama that seemed poised on a knife’s edge
between empathetic urban realism and aggressively knowing formalism. In his
next two films, New Jersey Drive and the Florida-set Illtown,
he continued to prowl the border of crime and style as if on a desperate hunt
for an auteur’s mantle, but the search increasingly drew him into the snares
of self-consciousness. Illtown in particular is a beautiful but purposeless
film, with a style worthy of Kubrick draped over narrative so abstracted from
reality that it might’ve sprung from William Burroughs’ opium pipe.
Gomez, it seems in retrospect,
just wanted to make films and thought he had to construct an imposing artistic
persona to do that. But directing episodes of Homicide and The Sopranos
perhaps helped convince him that professionalism is its own reward, and in fact
can be more gratifying than any strained quest for notoriety. There were always
veins of humor and humanism beneath the hard, macho-artiste surfaces of his
earlier work, and it’s these qualities that come to the fore in Drowning
Mona. Yet I would venture that the director’s real signature comes
in the drum-tight orchestration, countless droll details and, especially, the
uniformly persuasive and pleasing performances that distinguish this film throughout.
To some indie stalwarts, making a movie like Drowning Mona would equate
with selling out. In Gomez’s case, it looks like growing up.
by Nonny de la Pena
the 1980s, the decade that saw the crumbling of the Soviet empire, the U.S.
witnessed an outbreak of persecution that, in terms of pure delusional zeal,
gave the Stalinistas as well as the Salem Witch Trials a run for their money.
I’m speaking of the spate of "child abuse" cases in which a vast
succession of innocent teachers and parents were demonized, convicted and sent
to prison, their lives and careers effectively ruined–all on the basis
of "evidence" manufactured in the minds of babes by supposed mental
health experts and turned into horrific legal flails by ambitious prosecutors
and their dependable ally, public stupidity.
This barbaric hysteria,
which easily qualifies as one of America’s collective crimes of the century,
is the subject of Nonny de la Pena’s The Jaundiced Eye, a documentary
opening March 3 at the Screening Room. Or, rather, the child abuse frenzy is
one of the movie’s subjects. Another is a factor that serves as both a
competing and a complicating malignancy: homophobia of the sort that ignorantly
equates homosexuality with pedophilia.
The young man at the film’s
center, Stephen Matthews, grew up in a smallish Michigan town and at 17 fathered
a child before he started to face up to his homosexuality. He took little interest
in his son and ran off to California, leaving the boy’s care to his mother
and his grandparents, i.e., Stephen’s folks, who admit that they spoiled
the kid rotten. After the boy’s mother and her live-in boyfriend (who apparently
beat the boy) got into an emotional snarl with the grandparents, and Stephen
returned to town, stories began to emerge from the boy’s lips, coaxed of
course by a psychiatrist–stories of how this innocent’s rear was repeatedly
sodomized, using machetes (!) as well as genitalia, by Stephen and his dad while
the child’s grandmother gleefully looked on.
To the belief that one’s
ultimate legal defense lies in good old, hardheaded American common sense, a
film like The Jaundiced Eye provides a chilling contradiction. Juries
all over the country believed testimony so far-fetched it might as well have
contained leprechauns, werewolves and magic wands. In the case of the Matthewses,
Stephen and his father Melvin were sentenced to 35 years in prison; both served
several years before new evidence got them sprung. The Jaundiced Eye deals
in part with their time inside and its effects. Stephen was raped; his dad found
God and started pumping iron. After their release, they’re bound by an
insoluble bond, yet are so far apart in their understandings that it’s
like they speak entirely different languages. Remarkably, Melvin enjoys a kind
of equanimity and Stephen retains a wry, humane sense of humor.
The film’s executive
producer and producer, respectively, are Amy Sommer Gifford and Dan Gifford,
half of the team responsible for the most important documentary of the last
decade, Waco: The Rules of Engagement. That extraordinary film and this
one deal with eruptions of a peculiar American fascism that have some striking
things in common. In both cases, the government ran roughshod over countless
legal standards and restraints in order to identity and persecute an internal
enemy, and though the damage done easily far exceeded that wreaked by, say,
Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 50s, the authorities have yet to own up to the truth
or make good.
That’s obviously in
part because both campaigns–as the Waco film so dramatically demonstrates–involved
a de facto complicity between the left and the right, leaving no side of the
spectrum to cry bloody murder. In the case of the child-abuse hysteria, the
left provided much of the thought and political muscle that created the 1974
Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and then allowed its fairly narrow
concerns to spiral outward into a spider’s web of potential offenses ideal
for use in all sorts of politicized emotional vendettas and crusades. The right,
meanwhile, supplied a sentimental credulity that tended to believe everything
children said and that held anything sexual, especially "deviant,"
in direst suspicion.
If any phenomenon deserves
to be termed the devil’s work, it’s this unholy collusion of left-wing
manipulativeness and right-wing softheadedness. Certainly, Stephen Matthews’
case was only one of too many real-life horror stories, yet it involved some
unusual complications because he was gay, perhaps the worst being that his own
son continued to hate and disbelieve him. Happily, though, there’ve been
some developments since the film was completed that aren’t noted at its
end. Due to The Jaundiced Eye itself, Stephen’s son, a teenager,
recently realized how he had been manipulated and signed an affidavit exonerating
his father. The boy and Stephen have since been reunited. Other information
pertinent to this important, sobering film is available on its website, thejaundicedeye.com.
short films now a feature of the Internet, it’s worth asking who will benefit
from the convergence of cinema and computers: cinephiles, filmmakers or the
companies handling the interface? And is this the start of something big, or
yet another distraction hobbled by inherent technical limitations?
Those are the kinds of questions
that will be posed in "Microcinema: Films on the Web," a seminar discussion
I’ll moderate next Monday, March 6, 6-8 p.m. The panelists will include
Rodger Raderman, the CEO of iFilm; Larry Meistrich, the chairman and CEO of
The Shooting Gallery; Joseph Cantwell, executive vice president of new media
for Bravo and the Independent Film Channel; and Brian Burke, director of business
development for AtomFilms. Presented by the Center for Communication, the event
will take place in the 8th-floor auditorium of the Time-Life Building, 1271
6th Ave. in Rockefeller Center. The seminar is free for students, $10 for others.