Drowning Mona directed by Nick Gomez If 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 a Yugo.
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.
The Jaundiced Eye directed by Nonny de la Pena In 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.
Reeling With 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.