Funny how filmmakers who feel the need to earn “respectability” never seem quite as good as they did in their early works. Ron Howard’s quest for artistic legitimacy made him a paragon of middlebrow Oscar bait long ago: a good director who would do anything to be considered great. (He might have finally achieved that with Rush, a film that, ironically, no one actually saw.) But none of his latter-day efforts quite hold a candle to his first few films, when just getting established was an accomplishment in and of itself. Those movies brimmed with personality, and a unique sense of humor that put his brand on the map. We’ve seen precious little of that in his later works.
Case in point, Splash, a romantic comedy about a mermaid in disguise and the nice boy she saves from drowning when they’re young. Years later, he’s grown up to become Tom Hanks, while she’s become a stunningly gorgeous Daryl Hannah. She ventures onto dry land – popping up buck naked at the Statue of Liberty – and he falls for her again without realizing who and what she is.
The material could have become supremely creepy, or at least trite and uninspired. Howard vaults over that hurdle by finding the perfect atmosphere: light, breezy and with a few touches of magical realism to make it all go down smooth. He follows that up by casting some heavy hitters in his corner. Hannah’s exuberant naiveté is instantly disarming, and Hanks’ early turn here reminds us that light comedy remains his forte. They both evince plenty of chemistry, augmented by their characters’ shy yet undeniable attraction to each other. Throw in John Candy as Hanks’ boisterous older brother and Eugene Levy as a scientist chasing Hannah, and the comedy practically writes itself.
To it, Howard brings is burgeoning skills behind the camera, which provided not only the right frame of mind to enjoy such a bon-bon, but the visual flourishes to make it last. The shot in the tub where Hannah’s tail spreads out before her speaks to a director with real chops, but who also knows how to deploy it in a subtle and unobtrusive manner. That helps Splash hold up extremely well, despite its obvious status as an artifact of the 80s. (You include an aerobics joke and you’ve pretty much dated yourself for life.)
The dangers come less from the oddball premise than from the by-the-numbers way it wants to deliver it. Howard aims his charms at a broad swath of the audience, which gives it a fairly conventional tone spruced up by some late-inning twists that can take you by surprise. (The notion of having to make sacrifices for the person you love, for instance, tends to hit a different gender than it does here.) It also benefits from a carefully crafted sense of the absurd – present in Howard’s breakthrough effort Night Shift – and a core sweetness that every film of this nature needs to succeed. We’re charmed by the central couple and want them to turn out okay; Splash understands how to give that equation a unique twist, allowing it to stand out from the pack.
And again in some ways, it reflects the director’s best instincts. He moved on to more prestigious projects, but his heart and soul belong to this one, as well as similarly gentle follow-ups like Cocoon and Parenthood. In that sense, he parallels the career of his male lead, who never seemed satisfied as a straight up comic and successfully shook that image at about the same time Howard became “legitimate.” Splash reminds us that their first steps forward still ranked among their strongest, and while their career growth has largely been successful, it subtly marginalizes the fine work they did on ostensibly less prestigious projects. Line up a row of Howard’s films and ask someone to choose. Chances are, their hands will fall to Splash as often as any other: a testament to its strength and holding power that too many people dismiss.