“Overboard,” the Goldie Hawn-Kurt Russell romantic comedy that came out in 1987, was not an especially popular movie at the time (it grossed just $27 million). But in the years since it has become a kind of comfort-food ’80s touchstone that a lot of people enjoy going back to; you could almost call it a cult film. In hindsight, it’s the original cheeseball contempo romcom — the first, perhaps, to have a built-in guilty-pleasure factor, the kind of movie you praise when you call it silly and corny and dumb.
It’s an amnesia comedy (an inherently tacky form), but in this case the amnesia was wedded to a neo-’50s caveman twist: Hawn’s character, who would have been described back then as a “rich bitch,” falls off her yacht and loses her memory, and she winds up being put to work as a domestic servant — in other words, a housewife — by Russell’s sexy macho handyman (her main job is to take care of his three unruly sons), all as a payback for how she verbally harassed him and ripped him off. But she comes to love her new life! It’s as if the director, Garry Marshall, took Lina Wertmüller’s “Swept Away” and turned it into a retro-kitsch family sitcom: “Everybody Loves White Trash Goldie.”
I’m not sure that even the fans of “Overboard” were hankering for a remake, and the new version does a blatantly trendy thing by flipping the genders of the two main characters. Yet “Overboard” has been made with enough bubbly comic spirit and skill that the gender switch turns out to be a smart move, from both an entertainment and commercial vantage. Like the original, the new version is a snarky situational farce that evolves into a cheese-dog fable of home and hearth, and the role reversal allows it to feel halfway fresh.
Hawn’s vicious princess is now an arrogant zillionaire playboy, played by the Mexican superstar (and terrific actor) Eugenio Derbez. The put-upon prole who takes revenge on him by placing him under her domestic thumb is an aspiring nurse with three nice daughters, played by Anna Faris. In this context, does the fact that Faris looks a lot like Goldie Hawn signify anything beyond a vague nostalgic recognition factor? Not really, but it’s something to go with.
In the original “Overboard,” the sexual politics were borderline accidental: The film may have expressed a certain undercurrent of ambivalence that women were feeling, at the time, about leaving the domestic sphere — but mostly it seemed to be an ’80s parable of wealthy and selfish vs. homespun values. It still is, but in the new version the gender politics loom both light and large. This is, after all, a movie about a male pig who gets his comeuppance, chokes on his pride, and does his penance by adjusting to the role of caretaker. It’s a therapeutic romcom that fits all too snugly into the #MeToo era.
What makes the new version, like the old one, a throwaway worth seeing is that the family theme lends it a dimension of novelty (at least, for a formula romcom), lifting it out of the realm of one-on-one amorous narcissism. Even more than the Hawn-Russell version, it’s less about two beautiful movie stars giving into the hot sparks between them than it is about a couple of ordinary folks learning to appreciate how much they bounce and ping off each other’s company.
Choosing an actor like Eugenio Derbez to headline a Hollywood romantic fantasy turns out to be an inspired paradox: He’s an international star with a major following, but American audiences are only just getting to know him — and so, watching the character of Leonardo, the filthy-rich yacht-cruising heir to a Mexican industrial fortune, we can’t drop the character into the neat slot we would have if he were played by a familiar icon (i.e., Matthew McConaughey back when they were churning out movies like this). Derbez, who is 56, is supple and understated, with a face that can look debonair or hangdog, or both at once.
Anna Faris’s Kate, who’s working two jobs while she studies for her nurse qualification exam, shows up on Leonardo’s yacht to shampoo his carpet, and he treats her like chattel — a tiff that escalates into a sharply funny war of words, until he tosses her overboard along with her carpet cleaner, for which she now has to reimburse the company $3,000. The less said about the amnesia plot the better (Leonardo tumbles into the ocean at night and washes up on the shore of Elk Cove, Ore.). But when Kate “rescues” her “husband,” taking him home and introducing him to the life of devoted servitude he has apparently forgotten about, Faris plays it with stylish sadistic glee.
Leo, as he’s now called, wakes up in a life that looks like hell. He’s forced to sleep on a cot in the shed with an empty soda bottle to pee in, he’s told that he’s a recovering alcoholic (so no more booze), and he’s put to work on a construction crew, whose members nickname him “Lady Hands.” These scenes, in which he confronts the otherworldly prospect of actual manual labor, are some of the best in the film, because Mel Rodriguez plays the team leader, Bobby, with a perfect amused jadedness, and the other actors, like Josh Segarra, follow suit. Derbez makes Leo’s plight a comedy routine that never stops evolving, moving from what-am-I-doing-here? befuddlement to outraged impotence to misery to grudging acceptance to the discovery that his new life has satisfactions he could never have predicted.
The original “Overboard” had a Garry Marshall clunkiness that worked for it, with Kurt Russell’s ramshackle home looking like a cabin out of Dogpatch. The new version, directed by the sitcom veteran Rob Greenberg, from a script credited to himself, Bob Fisher, and Leslie Dixon (who wrote the original), is made with a slick reality-based gleam, as if this story could actually be happening (even though the movie, at one point, acknowledges that it’s just about as nuts as the telenova serials Kate’s pizza-parlor boss is addicted to). The issue of who’s going to take over Leonardo’s family company is all boilerplate mechanics, though smoothly done.
What makes “Overboard” work, more or less the way it did the first time, is our belief that a spoiled-rotten heir could come to be happier when he starts to treat the woman around him like a companion instead of a utensil, and when he realizes that having a family beats having a yacht. The movie actually forces Leo to choose (an alteration of the original), and Derbez’s acting attains the tender glow that Goldie Hawn’s had. What does it say that a romantic comedy too cheesy to go over all that well in 1987 works just as well today — and seems, if anything, less daffy than before? It says that 30 years of the movies that followed “Overboard” have made romcom cheese into the new normal.
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