Overboard is Anna Faris’s first film role since 2013 in which she is playing neither a CGI character nor a fictionalized version of herself. It’s her first leading film role since What’s Your Number?, the 2011 romantic comedy that served as a peg for Tad Friend’s famous New Yorker profile “Funny Like a Guy,” which positioned Faris as an avatar for the sprawling complex of issues the article’s logline summarized as “Hollywood’s woman problem.” That Faris has not fronted a film in seven years suggests that neither she nor Hollywood has figured out how to solve it—a suspicion that Overboard, while enjoyable, largely confirms.
Then again, movie stardom is hardly the only game in town these days. While Faris’s ex-husband Chris Pratt has taken a more traditional route from sitcom to franchise stardom, Faris has taken almost the opposite tack. Rather than continue to fight the uphill battle against audiences, executives, and directors with patronizing opinions like “women have a built-in dignity” and therefore aren’t as funny—a real quote given to Friend by Airplane! director David Zucker—Faris has spent the past half-decade on the CBS sitcom Mom. Executive produced by Chuck Lorre, costarring Allison Janney, and headed into its sixth season, Mom is the actorly equivalent of a 9-to-5. The show is also part of television’s friendlier, if not outright friendly, environment for actresses past their ingenue phase, as well as the current wave of smart, issue-centric multi-cams. Mom, a critically overlooked one, centers on a mother and daughter who are both recovering addicts, frequently touching on issues of class, substance abuse, and single parenthood.
Meanwhile, like fellow actress Busy Philipps, Faris has found more direct ways to channel her charisma than through the roles other people give her. She has a podcast, Anna Faris Is Unqualified, where she talks relationships with bona fide celebrities, tapping into the my-famous-friends-are-your-famous-friends intimacy enabled by 21st-century technology. (Recent guests include Zach Braff, Macaulay Culkin, and Hayley Atwell.) That podcast led to a book deal, yielding a memoir that, despite some awkward post-divorce timing, presents Faris as “a real, flawed, and ultimately likable human being,” my colleague Lindsay Zoladz wrote at the time of its release. Rather than work inside the system to seek a match with the perfect outlet, Faris went directly to the people.
Now, Faris is cashing in some of that proven, hard-earned appeal for another shot at the movies. On paper, Overboard makes for a logical re-entry point. A remake of the 1987 Garry Marshall comedy starring real-life couple Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, Overboard shrewdly casts an actress who’s earned more than a few Hawn comparisons in her time. Blonde, wide-eyed, and down for some slapstick, Faris is essentially Hawn’s heir apparent who never ascended to the throne, partly because our current, dire studio comedy landscape means the throne arguably doesn’t exist anymore. Interestingly, Faris isn’t the first comedienne in recent memory to directly position herself in relation to Hawn: Amy Schumer attempted the same with Snatched in 2017, when Hawn came out of retirement to play Schumer’s uptight mother.
The original Overboard featured Hawn as a haughty rich woman with amnesia cut down to size by Russell’s carpenter, who enlists her as nanny, cook, and his self-described(!) “slave”—a top-five “they thought what was OK in the ’80s?!” premise that required a massive overhaul to translate to 2018. Working with original screenwriter Leslie Dixon, who retains story credit, director/cowriter Rob Greenberg and cowriter Bob Fisher update the premise by swapping parts. Hawn’s spoiled housewife is now a Mexican playboy named Leonardo Montenegro, portrayed by mid-crossover superstar Eugenio Derbez. The son of a Carlos Slim–type billionaire, Leonardo spends his days traveling the world on a floating pleasure palace—until he meets Faris’s widowed Kate Sullivan, an Oregon single mom studying to become a nurse while she delivers pizzas and cleans carpets.
This change successfully eliminates the put-a-stuck-up-woman-in-her-place vibes of Overboard’s inspiration while also introducing some welcome new dynamics. Apart from Kate’s three daughters, virtually the entire supporting cast is Latino, from her boss–best friend Theresa (Eva Longoria) to Leonardo’s family to Kate’s telenovela-obsessed coworkers, giving the entire story a Jane the Virgin–like wink. Almost half the dialogue is in subtitled Spanish; most of the soundtrack is Latin. It’s refreshing to see a major Hollywood production so unabashedly aimed at a multilingual and international audience, especially in a way that feels much more organic than every shoehorned blockbuster scene set in Hong Kong or South Korea. The sexual dynamics are new, too: In the original, Russell’s character openly jokes with a friend about potentially raping the woman he’s brainwashed, but in the revised scenario, Leonardo is now the aggressor, and it’s Kate who repeatedly turns him down. This doesn’t entirely eliminate the ickiness of when they eventually have sex under false pretenses—“Every time with you is like the first time,” Kate half-lies in a beat-for-beat echo of the first film—but it does alleviate it.
Unfortunately, this role-reversal also puts Faris in the position of playing the straight woman to Derbez’s comedic heavy lifting. As the humbled amnesiac, it’s Derbez who performs the physical comedy of slipping in spaghetti or flipping a wheelbarrow. He gets to revel in the absurdity of demanding grilled sea bass as hospital food, and in the physical transformation from entitled jerk to blue-collar average Joe with a life that’s more menial, but also more fulfilling. (Though still one that comes with a picture-perfect house and some suspiciously well-done hair for an overworked mother of three. Movie magic!) Faris keeps the moral high ground, but for the woman that carried The House Bunny, that’s something of a consolation prize.
Faris’s warmth, exasperation, and chemistry with Derbez are essential to making Overboard work, and for the most part it does: This is charming, why-not date-night fare, the kind that will surely get a boost from the existence of MoviePass. But it’s still a film that merely employs Faris rather than showcases her. Faris somewhat prophetically helped explain the dilemma in the New Yorker profile, explaining to Friend why she’s mostly opted for colorful supporting parts in the past: “As the lead in romantic comedies, you have to make the women love you and the guys fall in love with you. It forces your choices to be cutesy and safe, which is why women are always falling down”—or in this case, off a boat—“rather than grabbing their tits and saying, ‘Fuck you, bitches!’”
As a movie, Overboard delivers. As Anna Faris’s return to the multiplex, however, it can’t help but disappoint. Nowhere does Kate Sullivan grab her tits or tell Leo to fuck himself; the closest she gets is an ineffectual “I HATE YOU!” after he’s pushed her, uh, overboard. The movies still haven’t developed an outlet for Faris compelling enough to counterbalance the consistency of episodic TV, let alone the creative freedom of her own writing and radio work. Luckily, she can afford to wait; Mom recently passed the all-important syndication milestone of 100 episodes in an era when precious few network series ever do. Faris’s underuse consequently feels less like a problem for Faris than a problem for Hollywood. When, on a performer’s list of options, an industry remains a distant third, what hope does it have of remaining the default first for everyone else?