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 hard-working, sweet-natured landscape gardener named Bobby Calzone, serves as the eye of a hurricane of small-town 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.

This look is ultimately the funniest thing in a genially funny film, partly because Affleck, who sports a blond coif that makes him look like Marcia Brady’s prom date, underplays it so skillfully. His eyes don’t widen when an insult hits him; they’re wide as saucers already, constantly. What happens is that his upper lip tightens slightly, his jaw recedes an imperceptible measure. Such are the facial seismographic indications, minor but unmistakable, of a profound moral outrage, the kind that pays off as recurrent hilarity simply because it’s so intractably sincere. Eventually, the audience I saw the film with would laugh as soon as the camera cut to Affleck, before he had the chance to do anything: They knew what was coming, just as he seemed always seemed not to.

Affleck (younger brother of Ben) 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, N.Y., 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, foul-mouthed shrew that 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 venously acidic satire and bland, cartoony sitcom. It’s to the credit of Gomez and screenwriter Peter Steinfeld that what we get here smartly avoids both extremes but instead maintains an air of loopy absurdism that’s basically warm-hearted 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 is goofily determined.

Drowning Mona is the fourth feature by Gomez, whose ultra low-budget 1994 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.

Let us allow this of Chinese director Chen Kaige: As his Farewell My Concubine and Temptress Moon demonstrated, he has a knack for choosing and getting the best out of brilliant cinematographers. Chen’s new The Emperor and the Assassin, a sprawling historic epic set in the third century B.C., was shot by Zhao Fei, whose credits include Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Horse Thief, Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern and, now, his first American film, Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown. These are all gorgeously photographed movies, but The Emperor and the Assassin may well be the most impressive of all; it is certainly the most expansive.

In a film full of armies and landscapes, palaces and smoky halls, Zhao bathes his images in a kind of chilly but sumptuous golden light that offsets the grays, browns and beiges of everything we see; The Emperor and the Assassin may be the first big Chinese movie–the first historical epic, at any rate–in which bright primary colors are strictly banished from the frame. In one striking scene, a small army led by a rebel aristocrat invades the imperial palace determined to kill the emperor, but finds itself entrapped, cut off by a larger force. When the emperor’s troops then methodically cut the rebels down with arrows, it seems that Chen and Zhao are even reluctant to show us the rhetorical red of blood. Yet the slate-gray color of the air, stones and sky speak eloquently of the day’s bitterness.

This might seem like mere embellishment, except that in many Chinese art films of the last 15 years, visual surfaces have often carried the weight of meaning; indeed, in some cases they have had to suffice for more conventional satisfactions. So it is with The Emperor and the Assassin. Somewhat like a Sino equivalent of Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, it seems designed to evoke both psychological and historic upheavals via a richly detailed vision of royal intrigues in centuries past. But Chen, despite his meticulousness and intelligence, lacks Kurosawa’s Shakespearean energy and immediacy. His film is distanced and oddly shaped. Running 161 minutes, it gets off to a rather turgid start, and though it soon gains in momentum and dramatic fascinations, we always are more tempted toward admiration than involvement.

The movie features expert, commanding performances by Gong Li and Zhang Fengyi, who previously starred together in Farewell My Concubine; Chen himself plays a supporting role. The movie’s story concerns the sometimes bloody struggles that surrounded the efforts of Qin monarch Ying Zheng (Li Xuejian) to forge China’s warring kingdoms into a unified empire. The same tale was also at the core of another recent Chinese epic, The Emperor’s Shadow. In wondering why this one episode inspired two vast movies, it’s hard not to think of political allegory. Both films, after all, bitterly reflect that the human costs of enforcing a centralized autocracy were simply too high. Despite all the blood and suffering that went into its creation, Ying’s empire soon collapsed. EndBlock