CABIN BOY (Adam Resnick, 1994)
CABIN BOY was a notorious commercial flop and critical failure during its 1994 release, not to mention the butt of jokes by David Letterman, who cameos as a sock monkey-selling old salt. In retrospect the film’s lack of success should come as no surprise as star Chris Elliott’s comedic sensibilities are strange and often sour. The weird humor he lent to his appearances on LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN and the sitcom GET A LIFE and continues to bring on The Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim oddity EAGLEHEART appeal to a narrow segment. CABIN BOY was probably destined to be a cult film. Those immune to its charms twenty years ago are still likely to resist it, yet for those tuned to Elliott’s wavelength, this seafaring comedy holds up well and seems ahead of its time.
Having completed his schooling as a fancy lad, Nathanial Mayweather (Chris Elliott) sets out for Hawaii to take over his father’s hotel chain. On the way to the seaport the condescending young man irritates his driver so much that he’s left on the side of the road and forced to walk to his awaiting ship. Nathanial takes a wrong turn that brings him to a village and aboard the fishing boat The FIlthy Whore rather than a luxury ocean liner. He assumes the grotty accommodations are to part of the vessel’s ironic theme. Out at sea he discovers that he is on the wrong boat and will not be able to get where he wants to be any time soon.
Nathanial tricks cabin boy Kenny (Andy Richter) into changing their course, but the none-too-bright first mate actually redirects them toward Hell’s Bucket. When Kenny goes overboard, Nathanial is made cabin boy and assigned to do all of the dirty tasks to earn his keep among the five-man crew.
CABIN BOY isn’t especially funny, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead it finds amusement in surreal silliness and an alternative comedy style that draws from anti-humor. It tends to be theoretically comical more than ha-ha funny. Writer-director Adam Resnick and Elliott, who shares a story credit, riff on 1950s and ‘60s fantasy adventure films. They express delight and laughs in miniatures, the old studio backlot look, and stop-motion animated creatures that recall the work of Ray Harryhausen. CABIN BOY’s respect for nostalgia highlights the inventiveness in a bygone era while also treating it irreverently and taking waggish pleasure in the tackiness.
Elliott’s prissy jerk in knee socks, short pants, and a wig resists softening even as he grows from a boy into a man. The high, nasal voice Elliott uses can be annoying, and the character’s patronizing demeanor toward all, be it someone of comparable social rank or the scruffy fishermen, ensures that he is not made endearing in the slightest. Nathanial’s blithe indifference to others fuels this acerbically funny performance. While Nathanial follows an arc from brattiness to maturity, his inherent loathesomeness serves as a rejoinder to any other story in which a loss of privilege leads to humility and personal betterment. At just 80 minutes CABIN BOY stretches to reach feature length, yet the commitment to sheer weirdness is often enough to keep it afloat through the slow spots.