Featuring Christina Ricci in her first film role (Sleepy Hollow, After.Life), Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands), and Cher, Mermaids is actually a pretty descent film. At least, I liked it.
According to The New York Times review:
The flamboyant Mrs. Flax is too much, which means that she’s just about right for Cher, who plays her to the teeth (and nose and hair) in Richard Benjamin’s sweet-natured new comedy, “Mermaids.”
Mrs. Flax dresses in a way that might be expected to cause male passers-by to walk into trees. Skirts are tight. Necklines plunge. Wigs tower. She’s not the sort of mom who bakes apple pies.
Every meal at home is presented on a platter, often with toothpicks, as if it were something to nibble on with cocktails. Mrs. Flax’s favorite supper: finger food followed by marshmallow kebabs.
“She thinks anything more represents too much of a commitment,” says her teen-age daughter, Charlotte (Winona Ryder).
Mrs. Flax is ahead of her time, which is 1963. She depends on no man to support her, to help raise her two daughters or to give her more than passing sexual comfort. She is liberated with a relentless vengeance, the sort of character that is beloved in fiction and hell-on-wheels in fact.
“Mermaids,” adapted by the English writer June Roberts from the novel by Patty Dann, is a terribly gentle if wisecracking comedy about the serious business of growing up.
Though Cher’s cheeky, broad, comically self-assured performance dominates the movie, “Mermaids” is really about Charlotte, who is 15 years old and who is a startling combination of sophistication and ignorance.
As played by Miss Ryder, who is enchanting and funny, and firmly in control of every scene not handed to Cher, Charlotte is a potentially rich character. Miss Ryder is so good, in fact, that “Mermaids” might have dared to be a tougher, more satisfying movie than the stylish sitcom it is. “Mermaids” is a smooth, unexceptional entertainment about coming of age in a world where truly bad things happen only on television.
Because the year is 1963, much is made of the television coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but life in East Port, Mass., where the Flaxes are living temporarily, is never profoundly threatened nor, for that matter, experienced.
Charlotte is going through all sorts of contradictory emotions. She’s in love with Roman Catholicism, especially with female saints and martyrs. She even has a shrine in her room.
At one point her mother, preparing for a date, sashays by the door and finds Charlotte on her knees in front of the shrine. “Charlotte,” Mrs. Flax says dryly, “we’re Jewish.”
Though Charlotte wants to devote herself to the church, she is also obsessed by erotic desires, which are soon centered on a good-looking, utterly vacuous young man who drives her school bus. Eventually, the same young man catches Mrs. Flax’s fancy, with predictable emotional ramifications for Charlotte.
For most of the film, Mrs. Flax’s attentions are given to the local shoe-store owner, Lou Landsky, which is a secondary role that Bob Hoskins transforms into a fine comic turn.
Lou is nobody’s idea of a Romeo, certainly not Mrs. Flax’s. Yet by sheer nerve, wit and common sense he manages to melt some of the ice surrounding Mrs. Flax’s emotional reserve.
The youngest Flax is Kate, nicely played by Christina Ricci. Each of the three Flaxes is meant to suggest some aspect of the mythical creatures of the film’s title. Each is in some manner caught between two worlds, at home in neither.
The title might also refer to the fact that in a New Year’s Eve sequence, Mrs. Flax goes to a costume party dressed in the kind of mermaid costume that would wow them in Las Vegas. The credits say the costume was “built by” Patty Spinale and Gail Baldoni of the Boston Ballet Company.