A few laughs, but irritating 'Cabin Boy' should be fed to the sharks

January 08, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Let me tell you, "Cabin Boy" makes "Wayne's World 2" look like Immanuel Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason."

I thought Jerry Lewis had retired the Oscar category of "Most Irritating Performance by a Minor Comedian," but Chris Elliott must not have gotten the word. He's out to cop the trophy for all time. When he's done you won't even remember "The Nutty Professor."

Elliott will be familiar to early "Late Night With David Letterman" fans; on that show, in the mid-'80s, he etched a small post-midnight persona based on blithe stupidity combined with infantile hostility, mostly built around resentment of Letterman's success.

In his best riff, he convened a mini-talk show in the center of Letterman's and then acted sullen and miffed when Dave kicked him off. Very funny inside-show-biz stuff, but in those days, his gigs lasted no more than five minutes. Alas, "Cabin Boy" lasts a full hour and a half.

It felt more like a week and a half, and it's so far inside, it seemed to forget there is an outside.

Sited in a faux-naive universe of stylized studio sets and ostentatiously bad special effects, it's a gloss on "Captains Courageous," as if that really cried out for satire. In fact, one of the strangest themes in "Cabin Boy" is its penchant for satirizing antecedents that don't exist, like tony finishing schools for boys, whose graduates then enter the world under a periwig, with a certificate that proclaims them a validated "fancy boy." Huh? The real prep school isn't funny enough?

Anyway, such a lad is Nathanial Mayweather (Elliott), a supercilious, effeminate and pampered young snot supremely amused to be himself. He says thing such as, "What drifter's corpse did you get those shoes off of?"

Ludicrous circumstances contrive to get him aboard a scurvy fishing scow called "The Filthy Whore" rather than, as he had planned, the luxury liner that would take him to Hawaii to take over his father's line of hotels. There, he's introduced to Reality with a Capital R by a crew of plug-uglies that seem to be rejects from "The Wild Bunch," including such guaranteed sweat-and-stench machines as chinless, hulking Brion James and growly, bear-like James Gammon.

Soon, idiot Nathanial has bumbled the craft into Hell's Bucket, a mythical quadrant of back-lot pond populated by papier-mache, stop-motion snow demons and six-armed, blue-skinned hipsters all too eager to sexually initiate the girly-man. Remember Ann Magnuson? Didn't she have some talent once?

The trouble with this is that it's an attitude, not a movie. Elliott's character begins to grate by the second scene, and by the third he's almost impossible to bear, but the filmmakers -- Elliott himself and writer-director Adam Resnick -- seem to think that's enough.

"Cabin Boy" really lacks what might be called "that professional comedy touch." The film has almost no rhythm at all: The scenes themselves don't build to punch lines -- indeed most don't end so much as stop -- and they don't accumulate into any kind of meaningful structure. Now and then an impromptu laugh pops out, but the movie doesn't go anywhere, it has no narrative drive and there's no real character conflict or development.

In fact, it is a lot like Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" but not nearly as funny.

'CABIN BOY'

Starring Chris Elliott

Directed by Adam Resnick

Released by Touchstone

PG-13

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