Movie still from 1987's "Overboard."

Overboard June 14, 2017        

Released in 1987 to mixed critical notices and lukewarm box-office returns, the film has grown in its stature over the years, likely due to its inexhaustible run on movie channels over the last few decades. For many, it’s a guilty pleasure and maybe even a brazen favorite — Reese Witherspoon, who initially saw the film when she was just a little girl, loved the movie so much her first email address was overboard@aol.com, for example. 

 

Post-viewing, I’m still not so sure it’s the genre masterpiece so many claim it is. It’s dated, for starters: its gender politics are warped, its soundtrack (something of an unsuccessful marriage between Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” and Rednex’s “Cotton Eye Joe”) is an exemplification of the aural lows of the 1980s, and its overarching world view is very 1987. But I like it all the same — it’s like a Hallmark channel TV-movie that ends up winning you over in the face of potential disapproval.

 

It stars a wonderful Goldie Hawn as Joanna Stayton, a pampered heiress so exaggeratively spoiled she makes Jean Harlow’s Kitty Packard seem humble in comparison. Married to Grant Stayton III (Edward Herrmann), a misogynistic, selfish entrepreneur, Joanna, along with her husband and their downstairs counterparts, idle day to day in a luxury yacht, living lavishly as the boat saunters down the coast.

 

While waiting for the ship to be repaired in Elk Cove, Oregon, Mrs. Stayton, desperate for something to help pass the time, hires local carpenter Dean Proffitt (Kurt Russell) to remodel her closet. Though his work is astonishing — perhaps more than she could ever ask for — Stayton routinely condescends Proffitt, coming to a head when she orders him to redo the project after discovering he used oak rather than cedar while doing the revamping. 

 

By then has Proffitt’s patience worn thin: in a matter of minutes is he telling her off, perceptively noting that her complaints and her unstoppable vileness are only ways for her to distract herself from the emptiness of her life. Infuriated (and humiliated, as every observation Proffitt makes is correct), Stayton quite literally forces the man off the yacht, throwing his expensive tools off the ship with him. Proffitt, shaking his fist, swears revenge.

 

Karma ends up making a comeback later that night. While in bed, Stayton realizes she left her wedding ring somewhere on the ship’s bow. Knowing thousands of dollars are at stake, she wanders from the comforts of her California king and nabs it. But just as the materialistic reunion is coming to fruition does the yacht come into contact with a wave forceful enough to cause Stayton to lose her balance. She falls overboard, and, as reported in the following morning’s newscast, is hit with amnesia, either from the shock of the cold water or from bumping her head.

 

Hearing of the news, Proffitt, still rightfully bitter over the money he earned but never received, comes up with a harebrained scheme. Knowing Stayton has no idea who he is or where she comes from, he will pretend to be her husband, force her to work around his house, and in effect have her essentially pay him through household duties. Such could work, since Mr. Stayton at one point comes to the facility and decides then and there that now is his chance to rid himself of the shrew.

 

Proffitt’s plot is inarguably twisted, but it works. Stayton can sense something is off the minute she walks into his home, which is ratty and home to a handful of children. Some time later, though, she begins to grow accustomed to her new life. And against the odds, Proffitt and Stayton begin falling in love. That’s a problem, since Stayton is blissfully unaware of the grand illusion swimming beneath her and since her family members are still snooping around trying to figure out exactly where she is.

 

Like Proffitt, we spend much of the film very aware of the conspiracy and its effects. But unlike Proffitt, we also spend much of the film unshakably disturbed by it. Disconcertingly, this is really a movie about a man’s quest to emotionally abuse a woman into becoming a better person, making her work like a slave day in and day out. Their first night as faux husband and wife, Proffitt even attempts seduction, and if that isn’t profoundly depraved, I’m an orange rhinoceros.

 

But then a switch is unexpectedly flipped somewhere during the middle of the feature. We start to grow to like Proffitt in lieu of his manipulations — he’s a struggling father who maybe even set the plot in motion in a fit of desperately needing some help around the house — and we’re convinced by Stayton’s metamorphosis from inconsiderate rich bitch to hard-working, sunny, unknowingly pretend wife and mother. Russell and Hawn’s chemistry helps, too.

 

I could never accept Pretty Woman because I always found the relationship between Julia Roberts and Richard Gere to be so deeply contrived — no matter their genuine affection for one another, Gere’s character is still intrinsically slimy. 

 

But all in Overboard is dealt with a sort of broadness which mostly excuses the oft-deplorable actions of its hero: witness Hawn’s portrayal of Stayton before she became a fabrication of humility and you’ll know what I mean. This kind of plot can work, anyway, when done right: classic rom-coms, from The Lady Eve (1941) to Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), have proven that manipulation is sometimes a great catalyst for glowing comedic sequences.

 

And Overboard has plenty of them — I have particular affection for the scenes when Hawn is theatrically overindulged and the scenes wherein Proffitt has to do everything he can to keep the entire charade intact. Sure Overboard is flighty, predictable, and calculated. But it’s an example of formula done right, and there’s an unmistakable joy in seeing real-life couple Russell and Hawn work together.  B+

DIRECTED BY

Garry Marshall

 

STARRING

Kurt Russell

Goldie Hawn

Edward Herrmann

Katherine Helmond

Mike Hagerty

Roddy McDowall

Jared Rushton

 

RATED

PG

 

RELEASED IN

1987

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 52 Mins.

L

ike 1990’s Pretty Woman, which was also directed by the chick flick aesthete Garry Marshall, 1987’s Overboard works off a totally fucked premise and yet still manages to win us over despite our immediate misgivings. Whether that’s the result of its old-fashioned screwball antics, the appeal of its leading actors, or Marshall’s undeniable way of generating cinematic warmth is slippery. But not so slippery is the way Overboard conquers the romantic comedy genre.