MOVIE REVIEW : Not a Whale of a Tale : Cher, Ryder Chart a Mother-Daughter Course in ‘Mermaids’


We all know about mermaids: part woman, part fish. And anyone who’s ever had fish knows about ich, the scourge of the fish tank. Well, most of the trouble with “Mermaids” (selected theaters) is when it gets icky. Cutesy. The rest of the time it’s family relationship melodrama about a relentlessly unconventional family.

Mom (Cher), whom her 15-year-old daughter, Charlotte (Winona Ryder), calls Mrs. Flax, is a deadpan bolter. Get her into any emotional situation she can’t control and she picks up her kids and bolts. After 18 such moves, Charlotte is a whiz at re-creating her bedroom over and over again exactly, in state after state. Only the ZIP code is different. To Mrs. Flax, “Life is change and death is dwelling on the past or staying in one place too long.”

Somehow, either in a desperate bid for continuity or after too much “Dominique, nique, nique” by the Singing Nun on television--this is 1963--Charlotte has discovered Jesus and all his martyred saints. She’s now leaning heavily toward becoming a nun. Useless for Mrs. Flax to mutter in passing, “Charlotte, we’re Jewish.”


With the same fervor, Charlotte’s 9-year-old sister, Kate (Christina Ricci), wants to be a swimming champ. Wearing her bathing cap from breakfast to bed, winning school swimming meets handily, the lovable Kate is already well on her way. You might lay a bigger bet on Kate reaching her goal than Charlotte, whose 15-year-old’s hormones are already at war with her piety.

Mrs. Flax’s most recent break for freedom has landed them in a small, idyllic Massachusetts town where their nearest neighbors seem to have been created especially for Charlotte: a convent of nuns and their 27-year-old handyman Joe (Michael Schoeffling).

Casting a practiced eye over what’s available, Mrs. Flax zeroes in on an unprotesting shoe-store owner, Lou Landsky (Bob Hoskins), and starts keeping steady company. Charlotte proceeds to move in on the passive Joe, all the while asking forgiveness for her stream of impure thoughts, done as overbright one-liners to God.

“Mermaids” begins to be nice but wearing, the interesting guest you can’t get to sit down and take off the clown suit. It’s about real issues: a mother who cuts and runs at the slightest problem; a decent man who wants to get closer to this family but can’t because of their mother’s stony protectiveness; neat kids who yearn for meat loaf and normalcy and get . . . Mrs. Flax, whose cuisine runs to the Spam Tahita-KaBob.

Richard Benjamin has directed with too much zest, pushing his cast toward antic behavior. Cher, of course, cannot be pushed into anything, but her trademark approach to acting--facial catatonia played against innately droll delivery--has finally stopped being interesting and become an affliction. It’s at its worst when she hovers at a hospital bedside and the audience has only the chiaroscuro of her eye makeup to study for some hint of expression.

Even the resourceful, emotionally kaleidoscopic Ryder is beginning to show signs of repeating herself. Small wonder, when she has been cast as one Angst -ridden teen-ager after another. Nevertheless, this is not one of the roles in which she’s being challenged to do anything new. There was more inventiveness, more freshness to her smaller role in “Edward Scissorhands” than here.


Emotionally, “Mermaids” is wobbly: The touching sequence centering around the day of J.F.K.’s death is compromised when, in the months immediately afterward, no one ever seems to reflect on it again--in Massachusetts, no less. In addition to being emotionally false--from the memory of one who lived through that December--it makes the earlier scene seem like shtick, something simply used to manipulate us.

It also suffers from overproduction, not in its fine small-town setting, but at the costume party that gives the movie its poster. Mrs. Flax seems to have been plundering Bette Midler’s fish tank, while her neighbors must have had Bob Mackie in to whip up their fancy dress.

June Roberts’ screenplay, from the novel by Patty Dann, is peppered with briskly uninhibited dialogue. But with Cher as Mrs. Flax, a major overhaul was needed in one of the story’s prime subplots involving Charlotte and pregnancy.

Could anyone believe that this mother would not have imparted a few of life’s facts to her daughters? Never.


Cher Mrs. Flax

Winona Ryder Charlotte

Bob Hoskins Lou Landsky

Michael Schoeffling Joe

Christina Ricci Kate

An Orion Pictures release of a Nicita/Lloyd/Palmer production. Producers Lauren Lloyd, Wallis Nicita, Patrick Palmer. Director Richard Benjamin. Screenplay June Roberts based on the novel “Mermaids” by Patty Dann. Camera Howard Atherton. Production design Stuart Wurtzel. Editor Jacqueline Cambas. Music Jack Nitzsche. Art direction Steve Saklad, Evelyn Sakash. Costumes Marit Allen. Sound Mike Dobie, Jeff Bushelman. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG-13 (suggestion of lovemaking between adults and also young couple).