There are two ways of introducing and both are appropriate, either a personal introduction to Letterman (the Late Night years) or a book I’ve been reading in my spare time, between films, DisneyWar, so in the worst case of having one’s cake and eating it, let’s do both.
In June, I became an enthusiastic fan of David Letterman, why then? Personally, age and experience, Letterman is one of those of those things, people get when they’re older, and not something people get when they’re eight years old.
Anyway, watching highlights of Letterman’s time on NBC (The Late-Night era), there were many things which stuck out, but one of the most prominent was the emergence of Chris Elliott. Yes, it may seem like a cliché, but Elliott was one of the many reasons why Letterman didn’t feel like anything else on television at the time. Like Letterman, Elliott is an acquired taste, and you could split the line right down the middle of people who love him or hate him. Personally, when he was given talented writing around him, he’s great. He has this silly, childlike sensibility which worked, and didn’t seemed psychotic, and had this innate sense of comic timing, which made it play out surprisingly well. Which is something some comedians have problems understanding.
One of the reasons, Elliott stands out as funny, at least for me, is to paraphrase a cliché somebody used about Jazz, but it fits here: “It’s not the jokes they’re making, it’s the jokes they’re not making.” This theory applies so well to anti-humor it’s almost scary.
Anyway, after leaving Letterman, he got a short-lived TV series; Get a Life; which ran from 1990-92 on the then-nascent Fox network. Get a Life is a cult classic, and rightfully so, taking a 1950s sitcom premise, to its utmost extreme, and running with it. One noteworthy example was Elliott’s character visiting New York, and the joke is in the caption. Naturally, after two seasons of this; you wouldn’t expect anything more, but you’d be wrong. Because both Elliott and Resnick wrote a screenplay together; which was Cabin Boy.
Basically “A 1940s pirate movie mixed with Jason and the Argonauts.” Cabin Boy is one of the oddest comedies to ever come out of Hollywood. Now how to integrate this DisneyWar info into this review, so here we go.
According to James B. Stewart’s book about the Michael Eisner era at Disney, his then second in command; Jeffrey Katzenberg, rejected the script, he thought it was terrible, but Eisner loved it and approved it.
Why did Eisner approve it? Three reasons, the book talks about Eisner had a college degree and considered himself a well-read man (He had even written a play and had it performed), and fell in love with story plots, etc. The first theory states, Eisner probably saw, the plot set up, and wanted to make the movie based on that. The second theory, by 1992-94, Katzenberg and Eisner, were not agreeing completely, as talked about in the book, Eisner thought Katzenberg was unpolished and made Disney look bad, of course, the people around (including his wife) pointed it, it was Katzenberg; It was apparently who he was. So Eisner approved it due to pettiness, which considering some of the other stories about the era at Disney, is quite likely. The final theory is more a personal theory, but one which makes a bit of sense. One of the producers is Tim Burton.
Oh boy, this is getting complicated, so let’s be brief. Tim Burton is an incredible filmmaker when the script is solid. If it isn’t, you get things like the 2001 Planet of the Apes remake. Still, he does have unique concepts and does bring a lot to the table even in some of his, let’s be charitable, misses. He was supposedly attached to direct this but dropped out to direct a much more interesting film: Ed Wood. Just remember this during the review, because it would explain why portions of this film don’t work in a comedic fashion. But we need to get to the plot summary.
Right away, things start rather quickly as Nathaniel Mayweather is graduating from a prestigious finishing school where everyone wears powdered wigs, and yet it’s not the 1700s, Nathaniel is Elliott channeling his appearances as Marlon Brando on Late Night, being as annoying as possible (or trying to) but getting decent laughs in the process. The one scene that establishes wonderfully is a presentation scene involving how to properly wear a bowler hat, as Elliott smirks and making chuckling noises that seem to say; “Let me make this funny.” Which he promptly does, as the teacher rolls his eyes. Mayweather is what Monty Python would call an “Upper-Class Twit,” and Elliott can (and has) play(ed) a complete idiot, so well, it’s scary.
Shortly after that, we find him complaining about his limo service. This is one of the unique and most confusing aspects of this film: the contradictions in the movie. This is a universe where limos exist, and there’s a decent amount of modernity, but other parts of the films feel they haven’t advanced since the early 1800s, so you have powdered wigs, and 18th century boarding schools, mysterious creatures like a half-man, half-shark, yet it’s on a fishing boat, with the interior of a pirate ship. This is frustrating because you’re getting mood whiplash, from all the contradictions. If we’re following alternate history, and Burton was directing this film, he probably would have found the humor in this, but under first time director (and former Letterman and Get a Life writer, and frequent Elliott collaborator) Resnick, it’s just something which isn’t addressed, like it should have been. Which leads to a significant problem, the lack of establishing the ground rules of this universe, which for an adventure film with fantastic elements, is a major narrative failing. Is it visually distinctive? Absolutely. Does it narrative make sense? Not really, or instead it does make sense, in the stupidest way possible.
Rant over, Mayweather takes a wrong turn onto what he thinks is the ship that will take him to Hawaii to take over his family’s hotel business. He arrives at a town like the one from the live action Popeye movie (with Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall), and meets Letterman in a cameo role, and Letterman tells him that directly ahead is the ship that will lead him to Hawaii. It’s not, but he runs into another late-night talk show sidekick: Andy Richter (from Conan O’Brien’s multiple shows) playing a dim crew-mate of the rag-tag ship, whose name is so dirty, I’m not allowed to use it in the review itself.
So far this sounds bizarre, and things are happening slowly, it is. Because of this dueling style of comedy vs earnest adventure film, a light-wait sense of editing, is required to keep things relatively light, at least for a comedy, here it feels somewhat lumbering, as if the jokes are there, but it needs to have a decent amount of fat cut out, so to speak. Although the film is 80 minutes, so something says there was a fair amount left on the cutting room floor.
Elliott then meets up with a disparate crew of character actors/comedians: Bill Murray’s brother, Leon from Blade Runner, and the manager from Major League. This is after numerous scenes where Elliott annoys the crap out of them and enter something called “Hell’s Triangle.”
Eventually, the crew gets sick of Elliott’s shtick and decide to send him on a “mission” alone, to survey. After a scene of him thinking cooking oil will cool him down (it doesn’t), he meets the mysterious Chocki, half shark, half man played by 60s heart-throb (and War of the Gargantuas star) Russ Tamblyn, who saves his life. Where does this come from? Well, it was explained in a throwaway line of exposition, this is one of those movies, where you constantly ask yourself: “This got made?”
Let’s talk about audacity and comedy, particularly in visual mediums like movies and television. Audacity (meaning a willingness to take risks), is not a bad trait to have, unfortunately when it comes to comedy, it all depends on the talent of whoever is writing and performing said material. Elliott and Letterman had done the audacious television show with Late Night with David Letterman, which still holds up, for the most part, it was bold, it was daring…and it didn’t attract the mainstream attention, initially. But audacity is a double-edged sword, and you live by taking comedic risks, you’ll more than likely die taking those comedic risks. If you want clear proof of said ideology, watch the first eight episodes of Season 7 of Saturday Night Live, where the late (and legitimately funny) head writer Michael O’Donoghue decided to take a hatchet to everything SNL stood for. O’Donoghue ran sketches like; where he juxtaposed the 1933 classic; 42nd Street to (then) modern-day New York with pimps and strippers, or multiple sketches involving death, such as a housewife killing her abusive husband as a musical number. Were these funny? Frankly no, but they were audacious, and therein lies the problem with being audacious, you’ll fail more times than you try in said endeavor.
Cabin Boy lies in those extremes, it’s ridiculous audacious, yet it isn’t the slightest bit funny, it’s just weird. Not the funny weird, like on Get a Life or Late Night/Letterman, but it’s just weird. Or if we’re using the SNL comparisons, the Season 11 episode “directed” by Francis Ford Coppola, which ended on a musical number with a massive crane shot, to end the show, in short, it was weird.
Anyway, back to the film. Let’s just list some of the crazy crap, which goes on from this point.
- They meet a swimmer who is exactly halfway swimming across the world before Elliott’s ship runs into her, they have an extremely awkward love side plot.
- The Filthy Hooker crew run into a snow-monster they defeat by throwing coffee at him.
- Elliott meets a 6-armed woman who makes a man out of him, and then her giant shoe salesperson husband arrives, and a fight scene ensues.
To end this ball of insanity: they finally arrive in Hawaii, at a resort. Elliott meets his father (played by his actual father, Bob Elliott of Bob & Ray fame) and his father is telling him all these negative things, and Chris decides not to take all this fortune promised to him, and instead travel the world with the crew of The Filthy Hooker, with his “love interest” in tow. What an idiot.
Cabin Boy is many things, but to sum up, it’s a unique film made up of so many unique parts which simultaneously work and do not work, as such, it is one of those films where you’ll feel torn watching it, this is a uniquely original world, yet it doesn’t feel explained well, and the story feels rather weak, it’s a beautiful concept, but it’s just not funny. Yet there is something here, which is surprisingly watchable, and somewhat enjoyable. Did it deserve its descent to forgotten film status? No, because there is something admirable here, and any movie which had admirable qualities, is honestly worth talking about.