“I don’t know who I am, but I’m sure I have a lawyer.”
It is impossible to talk about Overboard in 2021 – as it probably always should have been – without discussing first how incredibly problematic its premise is. Not that rom-coms are any strangers to problematic premises. Indeed, where would the genre be without them? Yet even among their number, Overboard’s is especially cringey.
For those who (somehow) don’t know, the setup goes like this: Goldie Hawn plays a spoiled rotten “rich bitch” who hires handyman Kurt Russell to fix up the closet on her yacht. When he builds the project out of oak rather than cedar, she refuses to pay, ultimately throwing him (and his tools) off the boat – quite literally.
Then, in the sort of twist of fate that only happens in movies like this, Hawn falls off her own yacht, gets amnesia, and is abandoned by her miserable husband (Edward Herrmann, of The Lost Boys). Seeing an opportunity for payback, Russell decides to convince her that she’s his wife and the mother of his four unruly boys, and proceeds to torment her with ridiculous and contrived stories about their life together, while essentially kidnapping her into a life of domestic toil.
Naturally, this being a romantic comedy from 1987, she finds infinitely more satisfaction in penniless domesticity than she ever enjoyed as a yuppie, and she and Russell gradually fall in love, before the jig is finally up and everything is revealed, only for them to have a dramatic reunion as the music swells and a member of the Coast Guard announces that “man overboard is kissing woman overboard.” Y’know, the usual.
Here’s the thing, though: Overboard is formulaic, as you may have gathered, and the premise is just… woof. And yet, the film remains charming, even in 2021. So, how does it pull it off? Especially when an ill-conceived 2018 remake starring Anna Farris and Eugenio Derbez that at least tried to ameliorate the damage by flipping the genders absolutely failed to do so, judging by the 23% rating that it currently enjoys on Rotten Tomatoes?
It’s easy to lay the blame at the feet of Russell and Hawn. The two share a natural chemistry that sells their budding romance about as well as one could hope for, given how rushed it all is, and they’re both pretty charismatic and funny on their own merits.
That chemistry is natural in no small part because it’s real. Hawn and Russell were already an item by the time Overboard went in front of cameras, and they’ve stayed one ever since – a somewhat staggering accomplishment in a Hollywood where short relationships are the order of the day.
Chemistry can only do so much, though, and even if the stars sold the relationship, the movie could easily still fall apart because of how, just, utterly reprehensible its premise really is. So, how does it manage to avoid that, to the extent that it does?
I said before that it isn’t mean-spirited, and I think that’s the crux of it, really. Russell’s “joke” at Hawn’s expense may be, but the movie never is. While Hawn is a caricature when we first meet her, she already isn’t by the time Russell’s truck pulls up in front of his Texas Chain Saw Massacre house, with her in the back, wrapped in a sack from a garbage scow.
Hawn’s character may not remember her name or her past, but she knows who she is. It doesn’t take her long to take a firm hand, not just with Russell’s kids, but with their teacher, with Russell himself, and with her own life. It is, in no small part, her ability to sell herself as a figure with agency and integrity – even in a situation where both have been cruelly stripped from her, without her knowledge – that keeps the film’s cringey subtext from overwhelming it.
And sure, the film’s themes about childless people are every bit as inappropriate and dated as its themes about… pretty much everything else, but at the same time, it helps the whole thing feel less creepy that she falls in love with the kids before she falls in love with Russell. Just as there is a genuine chemistry between Russell and Hawn, there is a real and heartfelt warmth in, for example, the scene in which she teaches one of her new “sons” to read from his favorite comic book.
Fundamentally, that, more than anything else, might be what saves Overboard from itself. The back cover of the new Blu-ray – from Severin, of all places – quotes Roger Ebert calling the movie, “Warm and funny!” And he’s not wrong. It is funny, which helps, but more importantly, it is warm and heartfelt and earnest, even if what it’s being warm and heartfelt and earnest about is… real questionable.
There’s a popular review on Letterboxd from Zara that simply says, “me, crying throughout most of the movie: what is this straight nonsense.” That’s a good summation, really. The movie may be a bunch of tired, cringey rom-com bullshit, but they pull it off somehow, anyway.
None of which is intended to absolve Overboard from the utter and abject horror of its frankly monstrous central premise. If you can’t stomach this movie, then more power to you, honestly. Rather, this is meant to examine why, even for many of us who can see the grotesqueness of the premise for what it is, the movie still sings, somehow.
It probably doesn’t hurt that it chooses to not deal much in its rich vs. poor, domesticity vs. bourgeoisie logline and instead to make itself about self-actualizing by seeing things from a different perspective, a moral that Roddy McDowall (who was also the film’s executive producer) gets to hand out in its final reel.