“Come on over here, honey. You’ve managed to charm me with your moronic innocence.” —Ann Magnuson, Cabin Boy
Many of the strangest, most misbegotten studio films of the last 20 years have been comedies, perhaps because middle-aged executives have no comprehension of what the younger generation finds funny. They’re low-risk/high-yield enterprises: If finding the next Wayne’s World means peeling off a few million for oddities like Freddy Got Fingered or Pootie Tang or Kids In The Hall: Brain Candy, it’s a gamble they’re willing to take, even if they don’t understand precisely what they’ve agreed to produce. How likely is it that a boardroom full of suits busted up after reading scenes where Tom Green slings a newborn baby around by its umbilical cord or thwacks a sexually aggressive paraplegic in the legs with a bamboo cane? More likely it was a calculation like, “Hey, my kid watches this guy on MTV. I don’t pretend to understand it.” [Cuts check.] This is how Pauly Shore gets five movies in four years.
On this Island Of Misfit Toys, you’ll find 1994’s Cabin Boy, a Tim Burton-produced collaboration between writer-director Adam Resnick and Chris Elliott, creators of the cultishly beloved TV show Get A Life. Taken on its face, the idea of building an entire movie around the seafaring adventures of a high-toned “fancy lad” doesn’t sound like an automatic green light, but if Disney could peel off enough Get A Life fans for this unabashed silliness, maybe it’d have a hit. But like a lot of these cult comedies, Cabin Boy was a dog whistle few could hear, and critics and audiences dismissed it quickly and forcefully: It left theaters with grosses south of $4 million and earned Elliott a “Worst New Star” Razzie nomination, no doubt for the adenoidal voice common to all fancy lads. The extent to which the film remained in the public conscience is owed mostly to David Letterman making reference to his cameo appearance, which for a time was second only to Uma/Oprah as his go-to fiasco. “Hey, would you like to buy a monkey?”
But much like Letterman’s infamous Oscar-hosting performance, Cabin Boy is better than all that withering self-deprecation implies, and it’s acquired more than its share of enthusiastic apologists. Though slight in the extreme—a running time somewhere between a sketch and a feature film might have been better, but 80 minutes probably is as short as it could get—Resnick and Elliott’s whimsical goof on Captains Courageous, Gulliver’s Travels, and the animation wizardry of Ray Harryhausen in The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad and Jason And The Argonauts at least sets off on a doggedly idiosyncratic path. Such is the nature—and often, the ill fate—of cult movies: Narrow visions have narrow appeal, and the segment of the population delighted by the prospect of Elliott haughtily traipsing about salty sailors in Harryhausen-land turned out to be a sliver of a sliver of a sliver. But those who hear the dog whistle bark loudly.
To my mind, Cabin Boy works best at the very beginning, when Elliott’s be-wigged, finishing-school snobbery is at its most hilariously acrid. As Nathanial Mayweather, heir to the Mayweather Hotel fortune, Elliott doesn’t disdain the hoi polloi so much as he considers everyone, even the faculty and headmaster at the prissiest private school in existence, to be part of it. It takes a special arrogance to snort at an oral report on the origins (and proper tipping) of the bowler hat, but there’s Nathanial, giggling his way through the presentation before offering up his report on the more rarefied 14th-century Norwegian derby. When news arrives that the school must graduate Nathanial to official “Fancy Lad” status early and put him on the Queen Catherine first class to run the Mayweather in Hawaii, the headmaster dutifully complies, but Nathanial gets in a few parting shots on his way out the door.
Through a set of circumstances too silly to dignify with an explanation, Nathanial winds up not on the Queen Catherine, but on a rustic fishing boat called The Filthy Whore, operated by snarling seamen who live entirely “to catch fish and stink.” It’s the classic fish-out-of-water-over-fish-in-the-water premise: Nathanial, having worked for so little in his life that even the act of walking puts him out, aboard a ship full of grizzly, lumpen ruffians who subsist on liquor and chum. In an attempt to seize advantage of his sorry situation, Nathanial convinces Kenny (Andy Richter), the dead-eyed, mouth-breather of a first mate (“Captain says I’m dumb as a carp. Here’s how a harem girl dances.”), to redirect the heap toward Hawaii, so he can resume his pampered existence. But the change of direction hurls them headlong into Hell’s Bucket, a storm-filled no man’s land full of mythical creatures from which safe passage is by no means assured. There also appears a candidate for the most awkward love interest in cinema history, a swimmer (Melora Walters) who Nathanial “rescues” from an attempted around-the-world paddle.
Perhaps this is where Burton’s interests align with Resnick and Elliott’s, but the ship in Cabin Boy is set against a studio-lot ocean backdrop that’s both amusingly fake-looking and evocative of the Technicolor seafaring adventures of old. Though its tone is aggressively silly—and yes, a little more one-note than it should be—Cabin Boy is smart-stupid, the type of movie where a reference to Coleridge’s “The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner” can co-exist with surreal interludes involving a “big, fat-ass floating cupcake” and Russ Tamblyn as a half-shark/half-man named Chocki. One’s tolerance for Elliott’s fancy-lad affectations are probably the reliable bellwether for one’s tolerance for the film itself, but beyond that routine, Cabin Boy is flush with endearingly offbeat touches, like Nathanial preparing a dinner of “fishstick kitties” and squaring off against a slow-witted stop-motion iceberg monster, or a giant who doubles as a cuckolded blue-collar luggage salesman.
There’s more to savor in the casting, particularly the collection of rusty-throated character actors that compose The Filthy Whore’s crew (Brian Doyle-Murray, Brion James, James Gammon, and Ritch Brinkley as the Captain, described tenderly by Nathanial as “the drunken, abusive grandfather I never had”) and Ann Magnuson as a bored octo-limbed housewife who’s helped many a young sailor boy become a sailor man. The appearance of Magnuson and the other mythical creations in the third act help compensate for the weakening of Elliott’s shtick. Nathanial does have to grow up and become a man, after all, so it follows that the further his journey takes him away from his christening wig, the more the comedic tension between him and his humble shipmates dissipates. And an attempt to tie Nathanial’s inexperience to his girliness—underlined repeatedly in Letterman’s cameo and beyond—strikes an atypically sour note.
Yet Cabin Boy has always been better than its reputation. Like many movies written off as unmitigated disasters, this one has mitigations galore, but they’re peculiar enough to bypass all but the self-selected few who tap into its wavelength. Cast a mush-mouthed Adam Sandler as Nathanial Mayweather and you’ve probably got a hit—if not any more acclaim from critics—because his idiot man-children connect with a larger audience. Elliott’s fancy-lad stylings, by contrast, are far funnier but not as immediately ingratiating, and Resnick’s fusion of Old Hollywood seafaring adventure and Get A Life tomfoolery creates more distance still. It says a lot that the one person charmed by Nathanial’s “moronic innocence” is a cave-dwelling freak.
April 12: Hackers
May 3: Ichi The Killer
May 24: Vampire’s Kiss