'Overboard': An Appreciation
In 1987, MGM released director Gary Marshall's "Overboard." A gentle screwball comedy released during the height of the sex comedy craze of the '80s, "Overboard" starred former Disney kid Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn (then a box office dynamo and one of the most powerful women in Hollywood). Hawn and Russell were a real-life couple at the time, having gotten together on Jonathan Demme's underrated "Swing Shift" (they had previously met on the set of a 1968 Disney movie, "The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band"), but all the celebrity couple buzz didn't add much heat to the movie's opening. Instead, the movie came and went, making a modest profit and receiving only so-so reviews (Roger Ebert was one of the film's few fans in the critical community).
But the movie has endured. Last month, Anna Faris announced her intentions to re-imagine the property, and we recently devoted an hour of our very own podcast to applauding the movie's goofiness (and puzzling over its legal implications). It has gained a loyal and voracious cult following amongst even the most ardent film fanatics, and, 30 years later, it's unclear how anyone could have believed it to be anything but a classic.
So the question remains: why?
While it is true that the movie is a nostalgia-lover's dream come true, from the hairstyles to the bouncy score by Alan Silvestri (that same year he also scored a little movie called "Predator") to outdated hairstyles to the somewhat primitive understanding of both gender roles and the criminality of what is essentially kidnapping, one of the reasons the movie has endured is how timeless it truly is.
Part of its timelessness has to do with the ingenious tonal grafting of a 1930s screwball farce onto a 1980s relationship comedy. It was a bold move for sure; this is the decade that was defined by T&A extravaganzas like "Porky's." It was rare to see something so sweet. Marshall's style and sensibilities (an approach that borders on the classical) is perfectly suited for "Overboard"; aside from a couple of Pee-Wee Herman references and some of the clothes, the movie could be set in almost any time. Russell is a blue-collar carpenter, Hawn is a snooty heiress and through a series of zany coincidences, she becomes his wife. That's pretty much all there is to the story. There are few ties to contemporary technology, popular culture or -- another hallmark of Marshall's style -- politics. It's just the story of a family, framed by a traditionally gonzo conceit.
Then, there are, of course, the performances.Hawn is finally making her return to cinemas this week with Amy Schumer's "Snatched," and re-watching "Overboard," it's hard not to get positively giddy at her comeback. Her performance in "Overboard" is genuinely incredible. Watching the early scenes of her lounging around a luxury yacht, she is dressed like Lady Gaga and purrs like a Real Housewife crossed with a Disney villainess (a wicked stepmother maybe or an evil sorceress). When she loses her memory and Russell convinces her that she's his lost wife, her performance becomes more dimensional, nuanced, and effective; she finds contours to the role that would have escaped other actresses.
Every moment feels like it's on the border of becoming something endlessly remembered and a handful of the times it actually does. Who could forget when she has had enough of Russell's children playing pranks on her and she brings a hose into the living room and douses them all? It's something that, if you come across "Overboard" on basic cable, you'll watch until at least that scene. It's just one of those sequences you remember and love and is just as funny and charming as it was 30 years ago. The fact that she's able to give the character (ostensibly two-dimensional and saddled with a ridiculous central premise) so much depth, is a testament to her abilities and Marshall's kind encouragement. (Oftentimes the camera doesn't move or cut; it just stays still, waiting for whatever Hawn comes up with.)
And as good as Hawn is, Kurt Russell matches her. It's clear that the movie was filmed during the first part of the couple's relationship -- a relationship that has, all these years later, kept going. The way he looks at her, even though he's trying to pull a fast one, is a sparkly combination of infatuation and awe. (Just watch the scene in which he explains the Portuguese story of why boats honk three times when returning to port and you'll understand.) In "Overboard," he's a perfect blue collar slob, excitable and crass, but also one who is wounded (he's a widower in the movie) and able to bring nuance and emotionality to any scene (no matter how charged with goofy energy); he can also veer left during a potentially dramatic scene, too. Whatever you think he's going to do, however you think he's going to play it, he does the opposite. It's a performance of endless surprises.Another reason it's endured is how funny it is. Because it's really, really funny. And it's not just the performances of Hawn and Russell. It's the way in which Marshall moves (or doesn't move) the camera; look at the reveal early on in the film of Hawn's elderly roommate in the hospital, or how calm the camerawork is. Characters bounce in and out of frame, huge chunks of dialogue are recited, the entire frame is alive with energy but the camera stays steady, allowing everything to be seen and heard when it is supposed to, giving jokes and gags proper room to breathe. (At almost two hours, it's also unfashionably long for a comedy of the period.)
The supporting performances are terrific, too, from Edward Herrmann to Roddy McDowell (who was also an executive producer) to all the young actors who play Russell's kids (the "She might have no t*ts but she's got a nice *ss" line reading might be the best in the entire movie). Everyone is deeply committed, both to their characters and to the movie's off-the-wall vibe, which makes it even funnier. Nobody is over-the-top and that commitment to realism inside what is obviously a fantasy makes it that much funnier.
But the real reason "Overboard" has lasted all of these years and become such a favorite has to do with the movie's last 30 minutes, which are really, really emotional. Hawn's character finally comes face-to-face with her actual husband (Herrmann) and is compelled to return to her old life. Again, Hawn is peerless: The look on her face as she registers the situation, the way her physicality changes from boundless to hollowed-out, and how she sticks her fingers in her ears as her would-be children come crashing into the side of her limousine (all yelling "Mom!") It's deeply affecting in a very plain way.
Marshall's unfussy direction and lack of sentimentality means that these scenes play out with ease; her return to a pampered life are juxtaposed with scenes of Russell dealing with the boys on his own in their shabby house. Even when there's an element of suspense, the camera luxuriates on Hawn and Russell's faces. It's sort of miraculous, especially in the current climate of rapid-fire editing. It's these quieter moments that ground the movie's climax, which is pretty huge (it involves two boats and really reinforces the title). At the very end, we even get a nifty twist, but one that never undermines what came before it.
"Overboard" is a movie that has an oversized conceptual framework but an even bigger heart.