The beginning of the month saw the release of Overboard, a remake of the ’80s rom-com that starred Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. Overboard is essentially the creepiest film ever made: The story of an amnesiac woman who is gaslit into being a stranger’s wife and forced to do all the domestic labour as a form of revenge for an event she can’t remember, which later turns into romantic and sexual coercion we’re supposed to accept as romantic because Hawn and Russell’s chemistry is its own power source. Despite the glaring red lights surrounding every aspect of this film, it remains surprisingly beloved and is the consummate ‘problematic fave’. That it got a remake in 2018 is something of a shock, but its existence is a reminder of the eternal truth that Anna Faris deserves better.
Overboard isn’t really Faris’s movie. It’s the project of its other star, Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez, who takes on the Hawn role while Faris is the beleaguered working class single parent who exacts revenge on the bratty playboy who screwed her over. Reviews haven’t been kind, although the film did make back its entire $14m budget in its opening weekend thanks to Derbez’s star power with Latino audiences. Yet even the most damning critique of the film had to admit that Faris was great in a thankless role. This sentiment is oft-repeated in reviews of her work and has been a staple since she broke through into the mainstream with the Scary Movie franchise.
Faris’s filmography is full of comedies that can best be described as passably funny. Some are better than others, but one struggles to pick out a film that could genuinely be called great. She’s always a blast to watch in them, even though you get the frequent feeling that the material doesn’t deserve her. When she does get a substantial story or character to work with, she’s relegated to side-player in someone else’s spotlight.
What makes Faris stand out - and this is something the New Yorker was writing about over 8 years ago - is her face. She has the uncanny ability to mould and stretch it wildly between cute beauty and rubber-like grotesque. So expressive and detailed, she could have made an excellent silent movie comedienne, but that would have concealed the ways she uses her voice, which can flip from ‘sexy baby’ to hilariously sinister. Faris is a woman designed for the comedy of raunch, an area where women are usually segregated to eye candy or the silent wall which the men bounce their gags off. Her most obvious foremothers - Judy Holliday, Goldie Hawn, Lucille Ball - had those same powers to force boundaries further for their own means.
The New Yorker profile of her, titled ‘Funny Like a Guy’, made a big deal over the release of What’s Your Number?, and whether a female-driven R-rated comedy could bring in the big bucks or overcome the assumption that stories by women couldn’t sell. It did okay business, but wasn’t the hit many had hoped it would be. A few months prior, Kristen Wiig and company had changed the game with Bridesmaids, and the following years would see the successes of women like Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish, all of whom do cartwheels across the lines of wit, raunch, and ball-busting charisma. By right, Faris should be in those ranks. You look at the success of someone like Amy Schumer and Trainwreck and you can’t help but wonder ‘Why the hell didn’t Anna get work like that?’
I don’t have easy answers as to why. Despite repeated evidence to the contrary, the film industry still views women-driven comedies with the suspicion of a novelty (even more so women of colour). If you want those films made, you basically have to do it yourself. Wiig and her writing partner Annie Mumolo wrote Bridesmaids. McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone have shepherded multiple successful comedies to the top of the box office (making her one of the few stars working today who can legitimately say her name power alone creates hits). Issa Rae built an empire on YouTube that grew into an influential and beloved HBO series.
Others surround themselves with the right people, and if we’re being honest, it’s usually men. Paul Feig and Judd Apatow have been savvy enough to use their clout to elevate the female voices who could use the boost (once again, mostly white women). Faris has producer credits on two films: What’s Your Number? and The House Bunny, the latter of which did decent business but once again cemented Faris’s status as a comedienne who deserves better. She did have a powerful man in her corner there - Adam Sandler is another credited producer - but his involvement seems to have been minimal.
There is one dude in her corner: TV producer Chuck Lorre, who cast her in the CBS sitcom Mom. Lorre’s work is not necessarily the kind of TV comedy that makes critics excited. This is the guy who birthed Two and a Half Men and revived the national nightmare that is Charlie Sheen. Still, as expected for a Lorre show on CBS, Mom was and remains a huge hit. More shockingly, critics love it too. For a very mainstream multi-cam sitcom starring Allison Janney, Mom is surprisingly adept in how it deals with intense and complex issues like drug addiction.
A show like this, which is still a very broad comedy in many ways, could easily slip into endless editions of ‘A Very Special Episode’. Where it succeeds is in showing the day to day struggle of just trying to stay clean and sober and keep up the façade of being a functioning adult. The series is undeniably Allison Janney’s star vehicle. She gets the bigger laughs, the bigger stories, those easily packaged Emmy moments. That is not to denigrate the great work Faris does or her chemistry with her on-screen mother. Their moments together are like electricity and you crave more platforms for them to go nuts as a comedy duo. Faris probably has the tougher role in that regard. She’s not the ‘straight woman’ but she is the more grounded centre of the ensemble. Like many stars, Faris has found a better groove on TV than film. This is not intended to dismiss her work on Mom or exacerbate the still prevalent notion that film is ‘better’ than TV. Getting good movie work in-between filming a sitcom with 26 or so episodes a year, especially when you have a young child, is never easy for any actress, even if the roles are there.
Faris’s other creative outlet has been her podcast, Unqualified, which she confessed she started in part because she needed a hobby while her then-husband Chris Pratt was off filming blockbusters. While Faris adopts various characters on her show, which bills itself as bad relationship advice featuring her many celebrity friends, there’s a lot of Faris herself in this podcast. Pratt would regularly appear, and she would share the most embarrassing details of her life for the masses. For someone who has always mined a lot of comedy out of the art of mortification, Unqualified is the most potent example of that, to the point of brutality.
In the spin-off book, Faris details some of the toughest moments in her life, from leaving her first husband to the premature birth or her son to battling the problems of being part of a celebrity couple. As Pratt’s star rose, he became the big name in the relationship, and as he got buffer in the traditional Hollywood mould, cheating rumours started to spread, which the book tackles. Vulnerability in comedy is one thing, and it’s something performers are frequently praised for. Being so candid about your real life for laughs is a tougher field to mine, but Faris has the knack.
Faris doesn’t have anything on her upcoming filmography beyond more episodes of Mom. In fairness, at least she has something that shows how good she is, even if most of the series’ shine is focused on Janney. It would be such a shame if Faris’s career was defined by ‘deserves better’ than ‘received what she deserved’. Perhaps Paul Feig can give her a call, or she and Goldie Hawn can find a dream project, or she and Janney can catapult their TV partnership onto a bigger stage. Whatever the case, Faris has more than done her part to show how talented she is and she deserves the spotlight.
(Header photograph from Getty Images)