Chris Elliott’s Notorious Sinker Swims Again as a Special Blu-ray Edition
DIRECTED BY ADAM RESNICK/1994
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: SEPTEMBER 18, 2018/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
“The contentious classic that angered a nation!”
So reads the self-aware blurb on both the newly illustrated cover and cardboard slipcover of the Blu-ray special edition of 1994’s Cabin Boy– one of the most notoriously savaged movies to ever escape a major studio.
I can’t recall for certain, but if I’d attempted to see Cabin Boy in the past, it must’ve resulted in a feature length nap. It would’ve been in the VHS era; my viewing rooted in my deep and endless appreciation of all things David Letterman. In any case, most if not all of the movie was fresh this viewing; painfully so.
Here we have a Tim Burton-produced big budgeted (reasonably budgeted, at any rate, though the pervading phoniness of everything might cause some to challenge that fact) comedic fantasy starring Late Night breakout talent Chris Elliott (his strangely subversive TV sitcom Get a Life, which preceded this, remains a legitimate comedic gem) in the lead, Letterman show Head Writer Adam Resnick responsible for the screenplay and directing the film, and- no small coup- a wacky cameo by Letterman himself. The promise of such a thing sounded too good to be true. Cabin Boy, however, quickly washed ashore as the single worst soaked-through bit of seafaring cinema, ever. Evvvvvverrr.
In the wake of its horrendous reception, Resnick and Elliott were suddenly personas non grata (they recollect as much on a new forty-five minute retrospective interview). Yet, though collectively deemed a turd of remarkable stench, Cabin Boy has persisted as the most stubborn of floaters; fodder for Letterman’s own self-deprecating humor on a near-nightly basis.
Yes, holy crap, it really is that bad. Even at an atypically brief eighty-minute running time, Cabin Boy is somehow a mercilessly long voyage. Only in hindsight do some of its select peculiarities stand out as amusements worthy of honest chuckles. In the moment, it’s rough tides a-tossin’.
It might just be [Cabin Boy‘s] unheard-of blatant refusal to be that fx-driven epic or recognizable comedy that’s its bent-up ace in the hole.
At the top of the heap in terms of what works is the character of Kenny, an innocent deckhand with a compellingly quirky streak. Kenny, as played by Andy Richter of Conan fame, is the closest that Cabin Boy comes to a sympathetic character. For a moment or two, he and Elliott display actual screen chemistry. So, naturally, the film must do away with Kenny, ASAP. One can only assume that Richter needed to be getting back to his Late Night cohosting duties.
In case you’re wondering, Cabin Boy depicts the torrid tale of one Nathanial Mayweather, played by Elliott as perhaps his most impossible-to-pin-down grotesque yet. Entirely difficult to root for, Nathanial is, by design, part sniveling man-child, part entitled brat, part grown-ass man. He’s a total maroon flitting and flopping about the strange decoupage fantasy world he inhabits. Indeed, the world of Cabin Boy is like an ornately illustrated children’s book in which the creators had dipped their graham crackers in absinthe, and then, later, the whole book spend a year in a dirty puddle. It’s unique, that’s for sure.
Nathanial’s story begins as he departs his “Fancy Lads” private preparatory school, having been deemed a monster by the headmaster. Though an obvious authoritarian stick in the mud, the headmaster may have a point.
So, off goes Nathanial, in his school blazer, dress shorts, knee socks, and christening wig, in search of the majestic ocean vessel The Queen Catherine. As arranged by his wealthy father, he will then ride in lap of luxury, onward to his new destiny. Ah, the life of a Fancy Lad!
But then, David Letterman makes his life a living hell. Playing a bemused sock monkey vendor, the Late Show host intentionally misdirects Nathanial to board not The Queen Catherine, but a rowdy fishing vessel called The Filthy Whore. This is where he meets Richter’s Kenny, and subsequently kills Kenny (You bastard!!), while bumbling his way into the titular profession. (Though a better part of me prefers to consider the film’s title in reference to Richter’s character). The ship’s crew is a handful of grizzled galoots portrayed by a cast that’s as appealing as a film such as this will allow. (Among the surly seafarers are Brian Doyle-Murray, James Gammon, Ritch Brinkley, and as the Filthy Whore figurehead herself, future talk show host and natural birth advocate, Ricki Lake). Eventually, Paul Thomas Anderson film semi-regular Melora Walters is reeled into the remainder of Cabin Boy as a highly resistant love interest (Nathanial: “I just don’t get it! She seems totally uninterested in me, despite my smothering obsessiveness!”) Her eye rolls and bad attitude are most welcome by this time.
I could get into the would-be Tim Burton strangenesses that, for whatever reason, remained in, such as the flying freaky talking cupcake, the sub-Rankin Bass stop-motion ice monster, a free-lovin’ blue-skinned Durga-type called Calli (talk about cultural appropriation, eek), but what’s would be the use? The “whys” of the entire endeavor defy any reasonable logic whatsoever. Even Resnick and Elliott claim to have no idea how the project continued to completion once Burton departed as the original intended director. (True story).
The question then has to be, what is the appeal, the use, the point, of venerating Cabin Boy in the year 2018 and beyond?? Like anything these days, even this atrociously bad film has its fans. That much is apparent to Kino Lorber, as they defiantly nudge their oft-questionably branded line of “Studio Classics” to the sheer outer edges of respectability. But of course, the label is in on the joke. In Blu-rayLand, a cardboard slipcover is a thing of honor. Kino did not grant a cardboard slipcover to their recent Blu-ray of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. Nor did their exquisite edition of King Hu’s Legend of the Mountain land a cardboard slipcover. Cabin Boy gets a cardboard slipcover. Cabin Boy.
But that’s not all! This very special Special Edition release of this hollowed classic also includes a glossy full-color booklet, this one boasting an essay by busy film critic extraordinaire Nick Pinkerton, in which he stops just short of pronouncing Cabin Boy a Good Movie. He does, however, offer a fine career rundown and analysis of Chris Elliott, as well as a worthy food-for-thought take on why the heck Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous, of all things, was worthy of being spoofed in the year 1994. (It has to do with Kipling’s forging of American masculinity versus Elliott’s odd, quasi-sexual persona).
What of Blu-ray bonus features, you ask? This disc has them all. Kino Lorber has served up a veritable smorgasbord of maritime meandering and momentary memories of the regrettable, difficult shoot and the film’s subsequent toxic reception. The aforementioned forty-five minute interview with Resnick and Elliott is more entertaining than the movie itself. Their audio commentary isn’t bad, either. Both men having since landed on their feet, are frank about how Cabin Boy came to be; particularly about how, in their opinions, it never should have. Resnick claims he never wanted to direct it, and only did so when Tim Burton gave it up to go make Ed Wood. Elliott recalls grappling with the questions of “accent or no accent?” and “shorts or long pants?” for his character. He laughingly says that they made the exact wrong decisions on both counts.
In a recent exchange about the film, ZekeFilm’s own intrepid Justin Mory lamented my negative reaction to it, offering this defense: “[Cabin Boy] and his TV show Get a Life were wonderfully unrepentant anti-comedies.” Can’t argue with most of that, although “wonderful” eludes me regarding Cabin Boy. (Get a Life, I’ll gladly cling to all of my life). But, it must be said, this jaded critic actually appreciates that this movie can be (and is!) appreciated by such knowing critics as Justin and Nick Pinkerton. Cabin Boy could and maybe even should be a comedy of epic proportions, but isn’t. It might just be its unheard-of blatant refusal to be that fx-driven epic or recognizable comedy that’s its bent-up ace in the hole. And Kino Lorber, with this done-up, fancy laddish special edition, is successfully riding the wave of that sensibility. For a film that’s this much of an unfunny far and away misfire, that’s pretty funny.