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In the past few years, two Hollywood trends have been surging toward an inevitable collision. First is the studios’ lazy dependence upon sure-thing remakes; second is the growing acknowledgment that mainstream cinema has produced some shockingly misogynist work in the name of romance. So it’s no surprise that when screenwriters Rob Greenberg and Bob Fisher decided to remake the 1987 Kurt Russell–Goldie Hawn rom-com Overboard, they flipped the leading roles: In the new version, out today, Eugenio Derbez is a wealthy playboy who’s pitched over the deck of his yacht one night, resulting in amnesia — and Anna Faris plays a single, working-class mom who convinces him they’ve been married all along.
In 2018, it had to be this way. I can’t imagine contemporary audiences swallowing the story of a carpenter (Russell) who essentially kidnaps a wealthy heiress (Hawn) and tricks her into believing she’s the mother of his four unruly boys. That’s not a rom-com premise; that’s a federal offense. And yet Overboard is one of my all-time favorites, a movie I watched so often growing up I could no more disown it than a beloved yet racist relative.
Of course, Overboard and racist relatives certainly deserve a stern talking-to. I admit that the original Overboard is a deeply fucked-up film. (I haven’t seen the remake.) Hawn plays Joanna Stayton, a spoiled heiress who spends her days sunning on a yacht with her skeet-shooting husband, Grant (Edward Herrmann). When their boat’s engine needs repairs, the couple docks in the fictional town of Elk Cove, Oregon, where a bored Joanna decides to have her closets remodeled. Enter Russell’s Dean Proffitt, who’s given 48 hours to finish the job. “Try not to touch anything,” Joanna instructs as she leaves him to his work.
When the two days are up, Dean shows off his handiwork, but the fussy Joanna finds fault and refuses to pay him. So when Dean later recognizes Joanna on a TV news segment about a woman who has washed ashore with no recollection of who she is, he gets his revenge by convincing the doctors at the mental ward that she’s his wife, a made-up woman he names Annie, and taking her to his ramshackle house to cook, clean, and care for his rowdy sons. Reader, would you believe they fall in love?
Overboard follows a sadly common romance trope: the woman who falls for her captor. But from the very start, the viewer’s sympathies lie squarely in Dean’s camp, not Joanna’s; the film’s glaring misogyny hides behind a smokescreen of class difference. It trusts that we believe she has it coming — that she’s being taught what really matters in life. Dean is a widower raising four kids on a carpenter’s salary, while Joanna is haughtier than a Trump flying commercial — she calls Elk Cove a “cesspool by the sea” and wonders whether Dean is “housebroken.”
Hawn gamely delivers one of her most winning performances, employing her signature squinty-eyed glare like a diamond-encrusted dagger. Of course, director Garry Marshall invites the viewer to scoff at Joanna’s sense of entitlement even while ogling her ass; in one early scene, she taunts Dean by bending over in a one-piece thong bathing suit. Even when she topples into the sea in the middle of the night, while trying to fish out her wedding ring from behind a deck cushion, she’s not so much piteous as ridiculous, crying, “Oh, my hair!” Joanna plays the fool, but that role offers Hawn the opportunity to flaunt her comic skills. (It also, inevitably, illustrates the boundaries within which women were allowed to be funny in the late 1980s, and in some ways, still are; even at her most harried, Joanna/Annie is always ravishing, and the humor usually stems from the fact that she’s a stuck-up bitch.)
As Dean proceeds to gaslight “Annie,” going so far as to produce doctored photos of the two on their wedding day, we’re meant to find Joanna’s predicament not terrifying but hilarious. She’s forced to sleep on the couch, since, according to Dean, the bed gives her back problems. The fact that gentle Dean never forces himself on her — they don’t have sex until about two-thirds in, when it’s clear they’re genuinely falling for each other — is one of the film’s biggest lies; a man who would do what Dean’s done wouldn’t hold himself back. Overboard’s tone is always cheerful, never menacing, right down to the fact that the filmmakers clearly don’t want their audience to feel that Joanna is in any real danger. She’s just, you know, being enslaved by a spiteful contractor who was stiffed out of six hundred bucks and whose house could really use a woman’s touch.
How on earth could any woman fall for a man who would do this? But she does, and so do I — still — thanks to the explosive chemistry between Hawn and Russell, who had become a couple just a few years before filming Overboard, and whose authentic affection for each other shines through the undeniably grimy premise. Overboard holds up because of the connection between its leads, who are still going strong three decades later. Even screenwriter Leslie Dixon said as much in an interview last year, for the film’s thirtieth anniversary: “Kurt and Goldie were newly in love, and it shows on screen,” she said. “They’re so cute together that the audience just loves the film.”
Not for one breath do I mean to imply that the heat between a couple is a good excuse for abusive behavior. But there’s a difference between defending a retrograde movie and defending the actions of real human beings. Come at me if you must, but for me, this is one of those films that’s so much fun that I can find my way to love it in spite of its heinous sexual politics. If anything, they make it more fascinating. It’s hard to imagine the movie working with two leads who weren’t such a solid real-life couple; maybe Joanna’s predicament should have been portrayed in a more menacing light, but Overboard still delights because of the enthusiasm and unmistakable sense of trust between Hawn and Russell. They demonstrate how essential it is — not only for the process but also the product — for a filmmaker to create a safe environment in which a cast can play.
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