The romantic comedy is a much maligned genre. Too often the connect the dots storyline is a repeat of a dozen similar films that came out in the last couple of years. Every once in a while though, a rom-com has a hook and a star or two that make them irresistible. Today’s feature is one of those that cuts through the corn and gets right to the heart. It also features a fantasy theme that is in keeping with a lot of the films on my list from this glorious year of movies.
Three great starring roles, two really attractive people and a fish story that beats any tail (tale) your uncle ever told you about the one that got away. “Splash” is the perfect remedy for a dreary day or the answer to that question your wife asks when she is in a romantic mood, “What should we watch?”
Tom Hanks was a relative newcomer when “Spash” was made. He was clearly a rising star and this movie cemented his trajectory toward A-list status. Darryl Hannah would never have a role as perfect for her again. She has had a nice career but this must be considered the apex of her stardom. When her obituary is written, it most certainly will start with a sentence like “Everyone’s favorite mermaid has passed” [or if you are a chicken of the sea fan, “she’s been canned”. Sorry, it just came to me and I can’t resist a bad joke like that even when it is in poor taste.] Her character in this film is largely responsible for the name Madison being used as a first name for girls over the last thirty years. My best friend’s sister in law named her daughters “Madison” and “Ariel”, and whenever they came up as a subject I’d always ask how the little mermaids were.
Let’s talk about the three real stars of this movie. Darryl Hannah was lovely to look at and sweet of disposition in the part. As a mermaid who gets legs for a week so that she can seek her true love, she is literally playing a fish out of water in this fish out of water story. Her arrival in the Big Apple is plenty dramatic, featuring more nudity in any Disney film except for the three stars of “Homeward Bound”.
The sensation she creates on Liberty Island is enough to command the attention of the scientist played by Eugene Levy and drag him from his Cape Cod search area to the urban sea of Manhattan. Disney Studio’s created Touchstone Films to handle more adult oriented films like this, so that their brand for kid’s movies would not be tainted. This was right after the Wall Street takeover attempt and the installation of the new management team. Later they would create Hollywood Pictures for more genre related product. Even though there are a few shots where Miss Hannah’s breasts are partially visible, the director Ron Howard, manages to have her long hair placed strategically most of the time so the movie is never prurient.
In addition to her looks, Darryl Hannah has a really sweet smile and winsome way in the movie. Her character is guileless and seeks only to satisfy her romantic yearnings for Alan, the character played by Hanks. The look of disappointment on her face when Alan becomes surly is honest and tinged with confusion and anger. I much prefer the adorable smile she gives whenever she is attracted to something new.
She sells the innocence of the character and her sensuality with equal conviction. While it is a bit of s stretch to accept that she can learn to speak by watching TV for a few hours, I guess if you’re going to go with her being a mermaid, anything is possible.
Hanks becomes the template for romantic comedy leading men for the next two decades. He is a lost boy, who can’t commit to love but desperately wants it. His sad sack demeanor and comic timing are deft and light in the first part of the movie. There is a very funny slapstick section where he plays drunk and annoys others in the bar. He bangs into the bar, spills on other customers and ends up with pretzels on his face and it never comes off as silly, it is just true enough that we can empathize with him. In the second act, he has to play morose and cantankerous and we have such an investment in the cute couple that it almost makes him unsympathetic enough to say it would serve him right if things did not work out. Of course he gets his swerve back on in the third act and redeems the character quite a bit. The laugh he gets when he is suspected of being a fish like Madison is also pretty hearty. It diminishes the sting from when he flinches at Madison’s touch just a moment later. If it had not had that moment of personal humiliation, we might not be able to forgive him in time for the climax.
When he is the joyful new lover, Hanks sings the body electric with the best of them. His voice is jaunty, his manner is carefree and his smile is winning. Fortunately we get most of that back by the end of the film.
It is too sad to contemplate but John Candy died exactly ten years after this was released and twenty years ago this week. If you watch any of his films, you know what a funny and joyful presence he could be. He certainly could ham it up and he made more than his share of bad films, but “Splash” is one of the many times he got to shine on screen as both comedian and real actor. His introduction is all comedic bluster and he goes just far enough to make the character odd and outrageous without pushing him into being a cartoon. That’s important because in a key dramatic scene later in the film, he needs to give Hanks the half-time speech that gets him up for the third quarter “boy gets girl back” segment of the picture. He is very effective in that sequence with just he and Hanks in the warehouse office, trying to make the drama real so the comedy can soar. As the older brother he manages to convince us that he is capable of understanding feelings that he himself never really had. I think it is a very persuasive moment in the film and another one of those scenes that grounds the movie even though it is a fantasy. There is one amusing but ultimately unfortunate scene where we see Freddie and Alan playing racquetball. It has a great deal of visual humor in the way Candy plays the character. The ball bouncing off of him at least twice, his staggering in weary form after playing for only five minutes, both suggest a life of sloth. Of course the biggest punchline is the way he cools down during the match, with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other. Of course it is funny but it also foreshadows the heart attack that would deny us of his talents much too soon. Fortunately there are lighter moments in the film that also accentuate his physical manner and avuncular personalty, so there is no need to get morose. One hysterical bit comes when Hanks and Candy are being passed off as Swedish scientists by Levy as they try to gain access to Madison while she is in captivity. When I saw the movie on cable a few years after I saw it in theaters, the subtitles were changed and I thought Disney must have balked and I would never see the original joke again. I guess it was the cable channel that had the problem, because on my early version of the DVD, there is the joke in it’s original foot-long form.
There are always dozens of things about watching older films that I enjoy. The clothing, the hairstyles, the sticker shock on the prices of gasoline on the signs at gas stations all give me moments of warm nostalgia. One reason that movies set in NYC are great for those pieces of memory candy is that there were so many movie theater marques on view. At one point you can see that Coppola’s version of “The Outsiders” is playing while they filmed. The ultimate photobomb however, can be seen over Hanks and Hannah’s shoulders as they look in the window of a pizzeria. There you will find the ultimate in horror waiting for them. I wonder if Alan was tempted to take Madison to see that movie. “Splash” manages to be a very funny movie and a dramatically romantic one at the same time. Hanks’ star was rising like a comet and Hannah was luminescent in the role. John Candy managed to be obnoxious and sweet and sell both persona’s coming from the same character. The movie was a box office smash ending up at number ten for the year, and more impressively, being a favorite of families for the last thirty years. If you have little girls in your family, they will love Madison, so will the older boys. Everyone can enjoy Hanks and Candy, as well as old pros like Eugene Levy and Richard Shull. Rita Coolidge sang the end title song for this film, and like the year before when she did the James Bond theme for “Octopussy”, her reedy voice is matched by the innocuous song to leave a pleasant but not memorable tune in your head. If “Splash” is not a classic, it is definitely a movie to treasure for the warm feeling it will give you at the end of the night.