MOVIE REVIEW : Hawn Keeps 'Overboard' From Sinking

In the opening scenes of "Overboard" (citywide), Goldie Hawn--playing a rich harridan on a stranded yacht--has a chic, brittle, comically self-absorbed nastiness; it's one of the most effective things she's done in movies lately. Her character, Joanna Stayton, slinks around petulantly in slashed, sexy swimsuits and shades, complaining about the lumpy caviar, berating the help in tones of bored, childish hauteur.

Hawn seizes this part with the fierce delight of someone trapped in goody-two-shoes roles, who's finally gotten a shot at aping Bette Davis--or Carole Lombard.

Opposite Hawn, Kurt Russell plays Dean, a carpenter she shoves overboard after a fight. Russell starts as a hambone sexy proletarian, but he loosens up later and makes nice, muscular rapport with his on- and off-screen co-star.

Unfortunately, Joanna eventually turns goody-two-shoes herself. All those layers of snobbery peel off to expose a bouncy, bubbly Hollywood honeybunch ready to cook and mother up a storm.

The plot seems derived from Lina Wertmuller's "Swept Away"--itself an update of Barrie's "The Admirable Crichton."

Joanna is lost overboard near the Norman Rockwell-ish hamlet of Elk Cove, Ore. Stricken with amnesia and abandoned by her slimily hedonistic husband (Edward Herrmann), she tumbles into the clutches of the vengeful Dean, who convinces the doctors that she's his wife, Annie--a plot in which Dean's four preteen sons heartily concur.

By this time, the comedy itself has gone overboard.

The film tries to mix the two 1930s movie comedy strains: screwball romance and populist fable. But there's something nerveless and thin about it. Hawn and Russell are good, but their scenes together have a calculated spontaneity--overcute, obvious.

Director Garry Marshall keeps the lines slamming off each other briskly but with a shallow, hectoring energy. And he doesn't have much visual flair.

Only the actors--particularly Hawn, Katherine Helmond as her mother and Harvey Alan Miller (co-writer of "Private Benjamin") as her psychiatrist--occasionally give the movie the illusion of semi-high style. And that's only an illusion, because the lines aren't very good.

Writer Leslie Dixon ("Outrageous Fortune") keeps her flimsy superstructure racketing along with the usual wisecracks.

"Overboard" is Nielsen-ratings Populism, a superficially warm-hearted formula comedy where the values seem precooked. The film makers keep telling us it's better to live in happy squalor than suffer in satin on a yacht, and it's hard to believe they mean a word of it.

As with "Outrageous Fortune," Dixon manipulates sexual fantasies with an overslick, buttery hand--and here they seem a little pathological, coldly sadomasochistic. Joanna becomes captive in a world of men and boys, gratifying their every desire, turning into a slave--while her rotter of a husband cavorts with scantily clad doxies on their yacht. When tenderness enters, it's precooked too: a fey little fairy tale which Dean tells "Annie" about drowned lovers reunited in the moonlight.

Because these two lovers spend most of the movie persecuting, belittling or tyrannizing each other, the story's probably appropriate. In the world of "Overboard" (MPAA rated: PG), lovemaking and drowning--and romance and shtick--may be the same thing.

'OVERBOARD' A Metro Goldwyn Mayer presentation. Producers Anthea Sylbert, Alex Rose. Director Garry Marshall. Script Leslie Dixon. Executive producer Roddy McDowall. Camera John Alonso. Editors Dov Hoenig, Sonny Raskin. Art directors James Shanahan, Jim Dultz. With Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Edward Herrmann, Katherine Helmond, Roddy McDowall.

Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).

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