Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 17, 2003)
If you look hard, you might find a major studio release that seems weirder that 1994’s Cabin Boy, but it’d probably take some work to achieve that goal. Comparisons with 1985’s classic Pee-wee’s Big Adventure immediately spring to mind, and the fact that both share the cooperation of Tim Burton reinforces the similarities.
However, Burton clearly played a much more significant role in the production of Adventure. He directed that flick, whereas he simply acts as producer for Boy. In addition, although Boy displays a few moments that look like typical Burton whimsy, it more prominently feels like a product of the unusual mind possessed by its lead actor, Chris Elliott.
Briefly during the early Nineties, Elliott looked like he might actually become something of a star. He emerged as a cult figure with his work on Late Night With David Letterman in the Eighties, and this eventually landed him his own TV series on Fox in 1990. Unquestionably one of the most aggressively quirky TV shows ever to hit a network, Get a Life lasted two seasons and 35 episodes and didn’t exactly make Elliott a household name.
Someone must have felt impressed, however, as Elliott got the green light to make Cabin Boy. Actually, I figure the presence of Burton probably helped; fresh off the success of Batman and Batman Returns, Burton possessed a lot of clout. The filmmaker likely lost some of that clout during this period; from Cabin Boy to The Nightmare Before Christmas to Ed Wood, the Burton name didn’t exactly light up box offices.
Or maybe Burton needs to actually direct quirky comedic personalities for the flicks to succeed. Since he didn’t helm Cabin Boy, we’ll never know. In the hands of Adam Resnick – a veteran of Elliott’s Get a Life and Late Night With David Letterman - Cabin Boy stiffed at the box office and reached a significantly smaller cult audience than did the better-known Adventure.
Perhaps that occurred because Cabin Boy offers a significantly less interesting experience than does Adventure. Boy certainly has its moments, and I have to respect a flick that seems to care so little about following the rules. However, the movie appears a little too loose and flimsy to ever become more than a sporadic success.
At the start of Cabin Boy, we meet prissy schoolboy Nathaniel Mayweather (Elliott). Nearing completion of his time at the exclusive Stephenwood Finishing School, Nathaniel is a condescending, pampered and self-absorbed “fancy lad” who’s never done a day’s work in his life. His father owns a successful hotel operation in Hawaii, and when school ends, Nathaniel plans to take a cruise on the chi-chi Queen Catherine to return home.
However, Nathaniel insults his limo driver, who then leaves him at the side of the road. He takes a wrong turn and ends up in a nasty seaport, where he soon mistakenly boards a scummy fishing boat called the Filthy Whore. Obviously Nathaniel notices that his surroundings seem less glamorous than he expected, but he believes he’s on a theme cruise, so he goes with the flow.
Of course, he soon learns that the Filthy Whore isn’t a playground for rich goofs like himself. He tries to get the crew to return him to Hawaii, but they refuse and they generally humiliate him. Nathaniel tricks dim-witted crewmember Kenny (Andy Richter) into changing course, but this sends the ship into a nasty story, and they eventually end up in the mysterious and ominous part of the ocean known as Hell’s Bucket.
From there, Nathaniel and the others go through a number of wacky experiences. They meet a half-man, half-shark named Chocki (Russ Tamblyn), and they also pick up Trina (Melora Walters), a woman who tried to swim all the way around the world until Nathaniel ruined her quest. A number of other odd characters also appear during this unusual voyage.
Cabin Boy may confuse some viewers due to its nonsensical attitude toward place and time. However, I like the movie’s idiosyncratic approach to such things. For example, we never find any form of explanation why Nathaniel and other grown men are in finishing school. Are we supposed to imagine they’re teens, like stage productions of Peter Pan have us accept women as young boys? I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter; to get into the universe of Cabin Boy, you just need to go with such things and not worry about real-world logic. Heck, we meet a half-man, half-shark, an ice monster, and other mythological creatures, so the prospect of a 30-something dude in finishing school is the least bizarre element of the flick.
In addition, if you try to lock down the movie’s era, you’ll probably get muddled as well. The dress and manner of Nathaniel and his schoolmates clearly evokes an earlier time, but other elements demonstrate a more modern period. I get the feeling the filmmakers just did what they wanted to do and didn’t worry about consistency.
But that doesn’t occur in a slip-shod way, as it all makes some kind of weird sense in this universe. If forced to draw parallels to other movies, I’d say that Cabin Boy feels like a mix of Time Bandits with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure but without a likeable protagonist. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of another movie with such a disagreeable lead character. Granted, Nathaniel inevitably learns lessons along the way and becomes more personable, but he remains self-absorbed, moronic and hardheaded. He’s kind of like Homer Simpson without the warm side.
It’s cool to see a movie so gleefully willing to flout conventions, and Cabin Boy feels like a project I should embrace. However, it falls somewhat flat, partially because it really doesn’t offer a very cohesive experience. This may sound like I can’t decide which side I should take. One minute I praise the movie’s willful confusion, then I criticize it for that tone.
Here’s my explanation: I like the fact the film didn’t worry about any form of external logic and allows us to enter a world with mythological creatures and 30-year-old finishing school students. What I don’t care for is the sloppy manner in which the different segments become connected, and the hit or miss execution of the comedy itself. Cabin Boy does offer some funny bits, but it lacks much consistency, and even the best gags rarely seem terribly memorable.
I won’t call Cabin Boy a failure, for I can’t dislike a movie that seems so happily odd but that also lacks a sense of self-consciousness. Perhaps Chris Elliott simply works best as a supporting performer; his style of comedy may be too freaky to work in large doses. I think his best work came in the small doses that appeared on the old Letterman show. Elliott can carry a movie or TV show acceptably well; I did enjoy Cabin Boy. Still, his talents may prosper best in dollops.