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Saturday, September 20, 2003

Mermaids, 1990

Neither Fish nor Fowl

by Nicholas Stix


A gentle chick flick with a token male, Mermaids nominally stars Cher, but is really a dramatic coming out party for Winona Ryder. I’d forgotten how winsome (no pun intended) Hollywood’s most notorious shoplifter could be.

Mermaids is about a wandering “family” of mom “Rachel Flax” (Cher), and her daughters “Charlotte” (a teenaged Ryder) and “Kate” (a very young Christina Ricci). Following another of countless relationships gone bad, Rachel has moved the girls yet again, to a small town in New England, in the early 1960s. We are supposed to find the family endearingly eccentric, and though this shtick is forced, it works with Ryder’s Charlotte, and early in the picture, with Cher’s Rachel. Mermaids was made in 1990, when the “eccentric”/”fish out water” fad was heating up, beginning with TV's Twin Peaks (and then Northern Exposure), etc., except that instead of a town full of eccentrics, here we get eccentrics in a staid town.

Mom is supposedly a slut, but the locals do not make the family suffer for her “loose” behavior; indeed, the town’s character is not fleshed out.

As noted, Cher, who was then living off of her best actress Oscar for 1987’s Moonstruck, gets top billing, but she basically bulls through her scenes on star power, and as the picture progresses, is on screen less and less. Her Rachel Flax neglects her daughters, who get into trouble in her absence. You might say that she neglects the viewer, too. How can a “star” be absent from the screen as much as she is? It’s as if the director, Richard Benjamin, had a change of heart halfway through filming, and decided to shift the focus of the story. Or perhaps Benjamin, the third director – the others were Lasse Hallstrom and Frank Oz -- on a troubled production, was caught between two semi-rewritten, June Roberts scripts. (Some reports blamed Cher for the contretemps.)

Whatever dramatic interest the movie generates is through Ryder, who herself replaced Emily Lloyd, who reportedly walked off with director #1, Lasse Hallstrom. To the degree that Mermaids functions as a movie, it is as the coming-of-age story of this demure yet blossoming Jewish teenager who wants to become a nun, and who when she gets her first kiss, thinks she is pregnant, bound for a virgin birth. And yet, such cutesy naivete doesn’t fit the daughter of a mother who’s been around the block as many times as Rachel Flax has.

Bob Hoskins’ character, “Lou Landsky,” pops up early in the picture, has an affair with Cher’s Rachel, and apparently employs Charlotte (for one brief scene, at least) in his odd, mixed-use store. While the affair continues for the rest of the picture, Hoskins’ character is dribbled away. I guess the production team decided, “That’s enough for the guy; this is a chick flick, not The Terminator.” But Mermaids sank at the box office.

Mermaids has been identified as a coming-of-age story, but that is merely one of the many tossed-off themes in June Roberts’ underdeveloped script.

While entertaining, Mermaids is a movie with only one fully fleshed-out character and some nice scenes, but something less than a story.

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