Monday, May 23, 2011

Cabin Boy (1994)

Simultaneously inventive and consciously (and gratingly) corny, this semi-entry in the long-line of mid-90's attempts at making movie stars out of SNL cast members tells of an educated "fancy lad" who is forced to act as a cabin boy for a crew of scraggly fishermen. The ex-SNL'er, in this case, is Chris Elliot, who, to be fair, was better known for his work with David Letterman (who exec. produces and cameos here) when this film was released. His lack of an established comic persona (other than his patented delivery and clearly outside-the-box sensibilities) hurts his ability to mount a successful comedy vehicle, and, more often than not, his dimwit protagonist just comes off as a screenwriter's contrivance than anything organic or naturally funny. His love interest, an aspiring world-class swimmer played by Melora Walters, feels shoehorned in and forced, and the normally talented Walters flails around in search of a spark of energy to inject into her scenes. And, worst of all, the plot is almost completely nonexistent; other than a failed attempt at giving the cabin boy a self-actualization character arc (please), there are no real narrative throughlines, and the structure ends up resembling something like a half-assed SNL Odyssey sketch.

All of this is kind of a shame, because this Tim Burton-produced endeavor actually has some really great, interesting touches that end up making it somewhat watchable. For one, while the lead and his romantic interest are lame ducks, the supporting cast is near-perfect: as the grizzled seamen, Brion James, Brian-Doyle Murray, and, most of all, James Gammon are wonderfully savvy and over-the-top in their well-worn, tried-and-true sea dog personas. Considering the majority of the film takes place on a tiny, obviously falsified fishing boat, their efforts do miles to establish the sea-adventure tone of the film. Also appearing in hilarious cameos are Ricki Lake, Mike Starr, Andy Richter (as the even dumber original cabin boy), and, funniest of all, Letterman (billed as Earl Hofert) as a curmudgeon who, intentionally, sabotages cabin boy's voyage home to his parents. Other than the lame, poorly rendered ship, itself, the special effects in the film have a whimsical, George Melies-influenced quality that is refreshingly lo-fi and original: clouds have faces in them that blow in the direction of the wind, a man-shark creature is merely Dr. Jacoby from Twin Peaks with a fin strapped to his back, and the six-armed, blue-skinned sex goddess and her giant husband are rendered with merely blue-paint, puppetry, and in-camera tricks, like forced perspective. If the writing (and budget) had lived up to the conceptualization on display, this could be remembered as a fantastical anecdote to the more grounded, family oriented comedies of the time period (see: Billy Madison, Tommy Boy). Unfortunately, as is, it remains as, merely, an interesting curiosity, and a progress note of Elliot's talents at this point in his career (final verdict? Not there yet).

Slightly Recommended for fans of Elliot, or of a more surreal brand of mainstream comedy (Land of the Lost and Your Highness are vague spiritual approximations). This one is best enjoyed with lowered expectations; knowing that, going in, should prove for a fairly entertaining, mildly diverting experience.

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