My contribution to Joe Valdez’s “Class of ‘84″ blogathon over at This Distracted Globe, which you should be reading anyway.
Romantic comedies have mostly become so frenzied and impersonal that it’s sadly shocking when you come across one that allows two characters to actually enjoy one another. (Happy-Go-Lucky was a glorious exception last year.) Ron Howard has become a movie-fanatic whipping boy for his impersonal, polite, pointless Oscar bait, but he used to be a promising director of shaggy comedies, he used to take infectious joy in his actors, he brought them out of themselves, and their pleasure in one another used to give off sparks.
Splash, probably Howard’s most charming picture, is about a man (Tom Hanks) falling in love with a mermaid (Daryl Hannah) roaming the city in temporary human form, but the real fantasy of the picture is the idea of someone, with no subtext, no pleading or cajoling, no endless dates, just immediately getting you. In an early moment, Hanks picks Hannah up at the police station, after getting arrested for her differing issues on public exposure, and she plops into his arms and deeply kisses him. She drinks him. And Hanks, the dutiful boy turned man, the realist, the responsible one, drops it all and kisses her back. This moment is ideal pop: tapping into universal need and fantasy. We feel Hanks’ caution melting away because ours is too.
In the 1980s, and in a few pictures in the early 1990s, Tom Hanks was a brilliant actor. I tend to dislike the term “everyman” because for me it conjures images of slightly dull people we’re meant to admire for their dullness, but Hanks was a somewhat rarity as a comedic actor: his precise, revealing, timing didn’t put him above his co-stars or us. Hanks can be relatable and inventive at the same time: his timing further humanizing him, because he’s giving voice to our insecurities without divorcing himself of them. (This is why he’s called Jimmy Stewart.) Hanks didn’t used to pursue easy pathos: his characters used to be prickly and honest to a fault and choked on frustration, but they were still inescapably electric and alive. A good Tom Hanks performance, and Splash is one, is tonally varied and rich without calling out for attention. Hanks didn’t talk down to us, he didn’t see the middle class life as one drab misery after another – he gave those miseries their due with comic vitality. Yet, he didn’t use humor as ironic distance; the great Hanks performances are also almost daringly sincere.
Daryl Hannah is, of course, gorgeous, but her performances, particularly in her high time in the 1980s, have a convincingly wounded, universal quality as well, and she meshes with Hanks in a way that goes beyond dweeb/babe rom-com programming. We’re used to having good looking actresses condescend to us, going through motions of emotions they’ve never seemed to experience for themselves, but Hannah, with her distinctive, almost hoarse, voice and her supernaturally poised blonde goddess features, embodied that idea we tell ourselves about beautiful people: that their looks separate them from us, confuse them to everyone else’s motivations. Hannah’s mermaid, a traditional fish-out-of-water innocent, is conceived as the answer to all of lonely Hanks’ dreams, and she is, but she also has a haunting poignancy and need (Howard’s camera doesn’t ogle her, as it would in lesser pictures, it appreciates her). Hannah’s mermaid’s complete lack of self-consciousness has a price: she has no shocks to weather the blows of any pain, she’s raw. And that risky gift reinforces in Hanks something we secretly want most mainstream movies to tell us: that we deserve to be happy.
Most of Splash is a wonderful, frisky romantic fantasy, with plenty of non-sequiturs and segues, but it isn’t perfect, the formula gets in the way at inopportune times. We want these types of pictures to soar; we want to see the characters’ entirely shed the hang-ups that plague all of us and skyrocket to total movie bliss. Splash betrays us at a critical point: when Hannah is captured, as all creatures must be in these types of pictures, Hanks’ temporary abandonment of (and even disgust with) her is a blow we don’t need, and it douses our affection for him, it’s too nasty, sealed with horror imagery of Hannah dying in a cold, sterile fish tank that we don’t want.
The mad scientist stuff, with Eugene Levy doing as much as he can, is frantic and unappealing anyway, desperate. Howard and his writers (Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel and Bruce Jay Friedman) no doubt had no idea what to do with the third act, but they had a more interesting conflict right in front of them in John Candy, who plays Hanks’ hungry, drunk, horny for life party animal brother. Candy is terrific in the moments he has, and you hope that the picture will come down to an idealized version of those conflicted feelings we go through when family members marry off, that mixture of love and encouragement with insecurity and selfishness and fear of being replaced. We hope, because we know that Hanks must join Hannah in her world (the idea of her turning human and going city-girl is just too ghastly to consider), that Candy will be challenged, and that he will face a side of himself that’s concerned with more than self-gratification. That’s implied (Candy has a lovely final moment) but you want more of it in place of the evil doctor clichés. But these complaints border on the churlish; at its best, Splash is a wonderful daydream, an appreciation of the fantasy and trade-offs of love.