Shameless 'Mermaids' flounders in an ocean of shtick

December 14, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'Mermaids'

Starring Cher and Winona Ryder.

Directed by Richard Benjamin.

Released by Orion.

Rated PG-13.

... * 1/2 "And now, the 1990 Academy Award for Shamelessness. The Nominees are 'I'm Crippled, You Have To Love Me,' 'The Crippled Puppy with the Big Green Eyes,' 'Your Country's Flag, She Said' and 'Mermaids.' The envelope, please. And, the winner is . . . 'Mermaids."

All right, it'll never happen. But it should.

Any movie so desperate for emotional charge that it dredges up first the Kennedy assassination and then, when that pales, nearly drowns a child, is so far beyond shamelessness it's into squalor.

Cher and Winona Ryder play the lovable Flax girls, Rachel and Charlotte, mother and daughter; afeudin', afightin', and afussin', they've etched a cross-country odyssey of lovable weirdness. Rachel, having been ditched by the only man she ever loved (Charlotte's father), has become a specialist in the fast getaway; she loves and leaves in a flash, hauling her increasingly dysfunctional eldest daughter Charlotte and her increasingly cute widdle babykins Kate (Christina Ricci) along with her.

The movie finds them having put down stakes in a crummy New England mill town in a crummy house that just happens to front on the Atlantic Ocean. Even in '63 -- the year of the film -- it would have gone for millions!

It's a little difficult to describe "Mermaids" as a story because it's really not a story; it's a loose collection of anecdotes disguised as a story, playing Ma's brassy take-chargeism against daughter's increasingly precious looniness. And most of the humor is based on Charlotte's insistence on pretending to be Catholic when she's Jewish, and her fascination with Catholic lore and culture.

Both women are too good to be used so cavalierly; their comic timing is exquisite. But the roles aren't freshly imagined. Cher, for example, plays the same sloe-eyed, understated cynic that's been her persona since she was straight person to Sonny Bono. And Ryder has herself played the zany, whacked-out teen before -- about 20 times.

So in a sense, the movie is like watching a Martin & Lewis film for the 15th time: It's all shtick, nothing is new, but the performers are such pros there's a kind of a Zen pleasure in the conviction which they bring to the same old thing. With Cher it's the low-key zinger arriving in that throaty voice from behind that Nefertiti-remote face; with Ryder, the key trick is the comic double take, eyes rolling upward at slightly different rates, perfect little face screwing up into a crumple of comic angst.

What narrative there is generally takes the shape in the late going of some tepid will-they-or-won't-they? revolving around the men in each woman's life. In Cher's case, it's Bob Hoskins, woefully miscast as a Jewish shoe-shop owner in the high Yankeeland of small-town Massachusetts; there's no magic to the Courtship of Charlotte's Mother.

As for Charlotte, the movie plays with her awakening sexuality somewhat more effectively, especially as it comes to focus on Michael Schoeffling as the resident village hunk. Schoeffling is actually quite good in a clumsy, repressed, almost embarrassed way. These two struggle wretchedly toward something that is more than sex (for a teen-age girl in 1963? Not hardly) but less than love. It's the movie's one contact with the authentic, and it's quite fleeting.

Everything else is phony as rubber money. The 1963 setting exists for two unconvincing reasons: to haul in Kennedy's death for a jolt of unearned bathos at mid-picture and to enable Cher to parade around in mules and toreador pants so tight they look explosive.

You also have to get through one of the lamest of gambits in schmaltz storytelling. So that Rachel and Charlotte can be reconciled, poor little Kate has to undergo ritual drowning and miracle recovery. Of course it's dishonest technically -- submerge a person for five minutes and they live or they die, but they don't linger woozily on the edge of extinction for days so that mom and sis can get in touch with their feelings.

It's also dishonest narratively, because it suddenly provides Rachel a moral platform by which to denounce Charlotte, when for the previous 106 minutes she's been about the most irresponsible mommy since Medea. And it's finally dishonest emotionally, because it's cheap and manipulative. It's like blackmail: Love this movie or we'll drown this kid.

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