With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
The strongest real-life romantic relationships are built on trust, mutual respect, and clear communication. In the world of rom-coms, however, all you need is a case of amnesia, a crude man with questionable morals, and a hoity-toity woman who needs to learn that her real value lies in being a wife and mother. At least that’s the premise of the 1987 Goldie Hawn/Kurt Russell vehicle Overboard, which is getting a remake next week starring Anna Faris and Eugenio Derbez. Whereas Hollywood frequently tries to recapture lightning in a bottle by remaking massive hits like Beauty And The Beast or Ghostbusters, this Overboard revamp is something less common—a reimagining of a film that was only a mild commercial success and not too much of an artistic one either. The Faris/Derbez remake hopes to improve upon the original film’s formula by gender-flipping its premise. But considering gender politics are just one of a whole host of issues with the original Overboard, the new film still has an uphill battle to face as it seeks to revitalize what’s been called “the most heartwarming rom-com about gaslighting ever made.”
The 1980s were a strange time for the rom-com genre. Whereas other decades have a specific aesthetic associated with their romantic comedies—the screwball comedies of the 1930s, the Woody Allen neuroses of the 1970s, the earnest romances of the 1990s, the glossy comedies of the early 2000s—the rom-coms of the ’80s are harder to define. The most influential creative force working within the genre was probably John Hughes, although his films also belong to (and in many ways helped create) a whole separate genre of high school movies. In terms of rom-coms about adults, there’s less of a clear-cut template. There were more traditional rom-coms like Moonstruck and Broadcast News, but also a lot of high-concept, comedy-dominant films like Splash, Roxanne, and Overboard. The genre’s 1990s renaissance came about in part thanks to Overboard’s director Garry Marshall, who would go on to helm films like Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride. But Overboard feels more like a test run for Marshall than the true start of something new.
Overboard opens with Hawn as a prim and prissy heiress named Joanna Stayton, a cartoonish caricature of arrogant wealth who chastises her butler for almost delivering her caviar late. She’s married to the boorish Grant Stayton III (Edward Herrmann, in a role that’s a far cry from his turn as Gilmore Girls’ lovable patriarch), but their relationship is loveless. So Joanna takes out her frustrations on her employees, including Dean Proffitt (Russell), the working-class carpenter she hires to remodel the walk-in closet on her yacht. Dissatisfied with Dean’s work, Joanna refuses to pay and winds up pushing him off her ship after he tells her off for her snootiness.
Later that night, Joanna accidentally falls overboard herself and winds up with amnesia. When her story makes the local news, Grant takes the opportunity to ditch his difficult wife and run off to be a playboy. Meanwhile, the widowed Dean decides to give Joanna her comeuppance by pretending she’s his wife and bringing her home to cook and clean for him and his four unruly sons—ostensibly to have her “work off” the $600 debt she still owes him from the closet construction she never paid for.
While other rom-coms, like 50 First Dates, While You Were Sleeping, and Desperately Seeking Susan, have dealt with memory loss, none have ever been quite as creepy as Overboard. In a 2017 interview with Vanity Fair, screenwriter Leslie Dixon noted, “I was daunted from the get-go by the idea that the amnesia was a central plot device. I thought that was hokey. But I was in no position to complain—someone was paying me to write a screenplay.” And the film definitely struggles with how seriously it wants to take its out-there premise. It mostly keeps things light, but it’s not unaware of the fact that Dean has literally enslaved “Annie” (as he renames Joanna). At one point he happily sings to himself, “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay / My, oh my I got a wonderful slave.” Most disturbing of all is a sequence where Dean tells his best friend that although he doesn’t actually intend to force Annie to have sex with him (his friend is all for that idea, by the way), he does have a “fun” plan to make Annie think that’s what’s going to happen—all before sending her to sleep on the uncomfortable couch.
Yet in that same Vanity Fair interview, Dixon also goes on to identify why the movie doesn’t feel quite as horrific in practice as it does on paper. The film’s “utterly ridiculous” premise is so over-the-top that it’s hard to get too invested in its real-world implications. Overboard is an attempt to return to the screwball comedies of the 1930s, when you weren’t necessarily meant to take the plots about escaped leopards and lost dinosaur bones too seriously. Like most screwball comedies, Overboard takes its cues from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “If we shadows have offended, well, it’s just a movie so don’t think about it too hard.”
But the even bigger reason Overboard gets away with its appalling premise is because, as Dixon puts it, “Kurt and Goldie are the two cutest individuals who have walked the planet.” From Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant to Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, rom-coms love pairing actors together multiple times because it provides a comforting shorthand for the audience; we intrinsically feel like these two people should be together before we even know the story’s setup. And not only had Hawn and Russell previously played love interests in the 1984 romantic comedy-drama Swing Shift, by the time Overboard went into production they were also one of Hollywood’s most famous real-life couples. In fact, their son Wyatt took his first steps on the Overboard set.
So no matter how unsettling the film’s plot becomes, there’s always the comforting meta narrative that you’re watching two people who actually do love and respect each other just playing pretend. That’s something Hawn reiterated when she stopped by The Late Late Show last year and shared a story about rewatching the movie with Russell for the first time in decades: “You know how sometimes you forget why you fell in love? [While rewatching the film] I remembered everything about why I fell in love. And it was really something to be able to watch that.”
I don’t want to undersell how truly horrendous Overboard’s premise is. Emotionally gaslighting someone while forcing them to be your slave is a horrific concept no matter what genders are involved. But as I discussed in my column about Something Borrowed, things that are exaggerated to the point of farce can sometimes feel less troubling than things that are problematic in less obvious ways. In other words, there’s not a real danger of someone watching Overboard and thinking, “That’s the kind of relationship dynamic I want in my own life!” in the way there is with rom-coms that more subtlety reinforce problematic ideas about dating and romance.
And if you’re willing to take the film at face value, there are definitely things to like about it. In fact, Overboard is a favorite of noted Goldie Hawn superfan Reese Witherspoon, who revealed at Hawn and Russell’s Hollywood Walk Of Fame ceremony that her very first email address was “firstname.lastname@example.org.” Hawn delivers a great comedic performance, particularly as the dismissive “rich bitch” of the film’s first half. “I don’t know who I am, but I’m sure I have a lawyer,” the amnesiac Joanna haughtily tells a doctor after threatening to sue him for the unglamorous living arrangements of his hospital. And though the film is almost entirely untethered from reality, there are a few endearingly accurate observations about Dean’s lackadaisical relationship with his rowdy boys, such as when he confidentially reassures a worried school principal that even though his twins are going through an “arson period,” he has it under control because he thought ahead and bought two fire extinguishers. The boys themselves are perhaps the most realistic part of the whole film; one of them speaks like Pee-Wee Herman for no discernible reason other than that seems like something a little boy in 1987 would do. (Hawn’s best line reading is when she’s introduced to her supposed son via his Pee-Wee impression and softly wonders aloud, “A falsetto child?”)
Overboard definitely isn’t an all-time great rom-com. It’s too long and too heavily favors comedy over romance, which prevents its later attempts at sentimentality from fully landing. And try as it might, the film can never quite overcome the inherent ickiness of its premise. But it’s also not hard to see why the film—which got mixed reviews upon its release and was only a modest financial success (it grossed $26.7 million domestically on a $22 million budget)—became considered something of a classic after repeatedly playing on cable throughout the 1990s. A casual home viewing is perhaps the perfect way to view this frothy, insubstantial story.
Just two years after Overboard’s release, When Harry Met Sally would revolutionize the rom-com and help kick off the genre’s most prosperous two decades. Overboard just missed the boat and therefore stands as a fascinating relic of a time when the rom-com genre was largely out to sea.
Next time: My Best Friend’s Wedding and rom-com happy endings.