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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Cabin Boy' Gets Stranded on Comedic Shoals

January 07, 1994|CHRIS WILLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From three-minute bits on "Late Night" to half-hours of "Get a Life" to--now--the big screen, Chris Elliott has developed a pretty singular, if slippery, comic persona. He's always inviting you to laugh with him and then at him, taking down the high and mighty while deserving a good tackle himself, alternately a provider and object of extreme condescension in almost the same beat. This fey, unctuous dolt deserves--and probably could carry--a good, deliriously perverse movie farce.

"Cabin Boy" (citywide) isn't it, not by a nautical mile. It's another cross-demographic picture that seems destined to bypass all demographics. There's a lot of juvenalia already built into Elliott's character, for sure, but his grown-up ironic sense gets dumbed down a little too much in the effort to make the movie a palatable kid-flick. In this climate you might appreciate the pains the film takes to avoid the profane, but Elliott's a master of black comedy, and this film desperately needs a little soot on its soul.

Elliott and writer-director Adam Resnick do at least generate enough good will with the bemusement of their concept to set sail for a while. Their farce is designed as a cross between vintage boy-at-sea adventures like "Captains Courageous" and the stop-motion fantasy of Ray Harryhausen's "Sinbad" and "Jason" pictures.

The "boy" coming of age here is Elliott, as spoiled-rotten Nathanial Mayweather, who sets off from a continental finishing school to rejoin daddy in the States. The ship he mistakenly steps onto isn't the Queen Elizabeth, of course, but rather the Filthy Whore, a fishing vessel full of gruff character actors. At first they're ready to pull a Jonah on this pampered stowaway, but all must band together when they run into adversaries like a fearsome iceberg and an island giant with a pocket protector.

The vividly colorful, set-bound set design (by Stephen Alescgh) and art direction (Nanci B. Roberts, Daniel A. Lomino) cleverly establish "Cabin Boy" as parody, for those who care to recognize it. And at least the screenplay doesn't resort to references to other movies for its laughs. The problem is that it doesn't find a lot of laughs in much of anything, referential or otherwise. Resnick's script plays like a first draft rushed into production before most of the gags got penned in, or before anyone decided who they should be targeted at.

Elliott does have some very amusing bits of ridiculousness--literally licking the deck clean, or doing a quadruple-take underwater. Current Conan O'Brien sidekick Andy Richter gets washed overboard before too long, but in the early going enjoys a few amiably imbecilic moments as a doofus involved in Elliott's shipside misfortune.

But it's another "Late Night"-er who steals the movie. David Letterman pops up for a couple of unbilled minutes as a denizen of the dockside village Elliott visits pre-voyage, and he cackles his way through the entire scene, patronizing the befuddled star as hilariously as he used to in the NBC days of yore. This marks the first screen work Disney has gotten out of the talk-show host since making that multimillion-dollar movie deal with him some years back; he so lights up the screen in his brief time he makes you hope they talk him into a Letterman-and-Elliott feature, though breath-holding isn't advised.

'Cabin Boy'

Chris Elliott: Nathanial Mayweather

Ritch Brinkley: Captain Greybar

James Gammon: Paps

Brian-Doyle Murray: Skunk

A Touchstone presentation of a Burton/DiNovi production. Director Adam Resnick. Producers Tim Burton, Denise DiNovi. Executive producers Steve White, Barry Bernardi. Screenplay Resnick; story Resnick, Chris Elliott. Cinematographer Steve Yaconelli. Editor Jon Poll. Costumes Colleen Atwood. Music Steve Bartek. Production design Steven Legler. Art directors Nanci B. Roberts, Daniel A. Lomino. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

MPAA-rating: PG-13 for "crude language." Times guidelines: Mildly rough language, two instances of implied sexual liaisons.

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