REVIEW: Overboard [1987]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★

Rating: PG | Runtime: 106 minutes | Release Date: December 16th, 1987 (USA)
Studio: MGM/UA Distribution Company
Director(s): Garry Marshall
Writer(s): Leslie Dixon

“I’m not bored. I’m quite happy. Everyone wants to be me.”

It’s really kind of crazy that a movie like Overboard could have ever come to fruition. Just look at the premise: a white trash carpenter kidnaps a wealthy debutante with amnesia to seek revenge by making her his housewife for her not paying him what she owed on a job. There are no repercussions, it’s all considered a horrible ‘trick’, and true love is formed out of one of the most clichéd and absurd opposites attract couplings ever conceived in cinema. This is a nightmare that should end in a courtroom with the slimeball of a cretin who pretended he was the victim’s husband so she could be his unwitting slave going to prison for a slew of crimes extending all the way to rape. And yet we find the comedy of it to be an endearing hoot.

This is why I find it unsettling to admit I still enjoy it. Maybe the reason is as simple as remembering how my sister and I watched it every time it aired on cable throughout the 90s, loving the humor without truly understanding its darkness. I hate that I can’t look at it with such wide-eyed innocence now because I can’t stand to think I’ve devolved into the same PC-friendly wet blanket so much of America has these past two decades. Unfortunately, this is our world—a place where harmless farce can be picked apart for its indecency to humanity as though we’re watching a documentary rather than screenwriter Leslie Dixon‘s vehicle to purely entertain. I don’t think she was ignorant to the ramifications either because she ensures the victim is as vile a person as the rest.

In the 80s you only needed heart to wash away the sins of those involved so the comedy could overshadow your disgust. This is where the kids come in. The man at Overboard‘s center—Kurt Russell‘s Dean Proffitt—isn’t a white trash carpenter with evil intentions or a bad attitude. In fact, one could see him as a saint for not blowing up in anger at posh client Joanna Stayton (Goldie Hawn) before she refused to compensate him for two-days of completed work. He held his tongue as long as he could because he needed the money to support the four children at home he’s raised alone for three years since his wife died. So you almost can’t blame him for seeking retribution or for hatching the plan that lands her delicate hands into his circus.

We accept the inevitable handwringing as conscience with Dean’s oafish friend Billy (Mike Hagerty) providing the voice of reason to keep him honest. You can’t go so far and say the Proffitt boys are Joanna’s saviors, though. That conclusion would land you in the crosshairs of countless feminists because they are most definitely still the aggressors and very much in the wrong. Whether Dean gradually opens his eyes to what he’s doing to her or not—whether he starts falling in love with her or not—it doesn’t excuse anything except for the fact that this is a Garry Marshall film and not real life. Because the film’s format is so predictable and we know how it will all shake out, we allow ourselves to overlook the obvious and simply enjoy the ride.

If you can’t—that’s on you. You won’t be blamed since the conceit is so morally reprehensible, but don’t deny the enjoyment others receive from it. After all, a woman wrote the script and its star Hawn embraces the comedy to give a hilarious performance running the gamut of stuck-up bitch to compassionate, selfless mom. Between her listless husband Grant (Edward Herrmann)—who proves more monstrous than Dean by the end—and her vapid mother Edith (Katherine Helmond), Joanna’s life was a nightmare anyway. She was already looking for a way out that she simply didn’t have the life skills to find. There’s a profound message in what her manservant Andrew (producer Roddy McDowall) says at the end. She saw a glimpse of how the other half lived. Whether she evolved from it or returned to entitled ignorance was up to her.

So the best we can do is watch her transformation with a hopeful smile. Yes it was spurred on by deception and yes she was psychologically abused into a catatonic state before her eventual thaw, but there is a quality message underneath its unorthodox construction. Hawn is magnificent at crossing between the two worlds and acknowledging her enlightenment. The film may not give her enough time to truly process what has happened, but a revelation of her real husband’s actions does help expedite things. While a perfect world would have her ending up alone to work things out away from the men who have used her, this is a popcorn rom/com. It’s not rocket science to know where it leads and at least Russell’s wisecracking boor possesses enough soul to accept the result.

Above all the comedy of this central love triangle devoid of love, however, lays the moving relationship between Joanna and her fake children. These kids are listless, under-educated, under-appreciated, and allowed to run wild without supervision because Dean wants to be a ‘cool dad’. They are terrors and yet she finds the capacity to love them by intrinsically doing everything her mother should have done with her. Throw the awkwardly burgeoning romance, the deceit, and the culture clash away and you still have this wonderfully touching depiction of love in its basest form. Dean may bring her home as punishment—to show the person she no longer remembers the error of her ways—but her evolution ultimately changes him as a result. The plot itself may be a cheap throwaway 80s laugh, but its heart is real.

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