Here’s another one that seems to have been a flop on release, become a bit of a cable TV cult classic in America, but completely passed me by in Australia. Chris Elliot is one of those blokes who you might not know his name, but you have definitely seen him plenty of movies. Movies like There’s Something About Mary, Groundhog Day and The Abyss. ln all of those movies, he was always a minor character on the edge of proceedings, never taking too much focus. But 20 years ago, he got a chance at the big leagues, being the star of Cabin Boy.
Opening at the Stephenson Finishing School, where the students are grown men in school boy shorts and Victorian era wigs, Christ Elliot’s obnoxious and stuck up Nathaniel Mayweather graduates, meaning he is now a qualified Fancy Lad. On his way to board the luxurious ocean liner the Queen Catherine and take over his father’s hotel empire in Hawaii, he gets lost and boards the Filthy Whore instead, a rundown fishing boat, crewed by rundown fisherman.
There’s a woman swimming around the world who Elliot rides like a SeaWorld trainer in a dolphin show. There’s a fairy tail giant who wears a cheap suit because he works at a home appliance store to supplement is income. There’s Bill Murray’s gravelly voiced brother and the gravelly voiced coach from Major League. There’s Conan O’Brien sidekick Andy Richter as a dead eyed, slack jawed man child. There’s David Letterman in a perfectly cast cameo. It’s amazing that Cabin Boy doesn’t crumple under the weight of all this wackiness in the first scene, but while it teeters on the edge of collapse most of its running time, it somehow manages to keep itself together all the way.
The thing about really good, dumb movies is, they’re actually pretty smart, just disguised as dumb. Bad dumb movies think it’s all about the jokes and never worry about the context. Just throw a whole lot of crap at the wall and hope that at least some of sticks. Good, dumb comedies set rules, build a world, populate it with consistent characters, then stick to all that while making really dumb, silly jokes. Cabin Boy is that kind of dumb comedy.
The world is absurd, the characters are stupid, the jokes are ridiculous, but they’re also never lazy. Elliot and director / screenwriter Adam Resnick were obviously meticulous in planning the world of Cabin Boy and ensuring every throwaway line, silly flight of fancy and stupid sight gag was never there just for the sake of being thrown away, silly or stupid.
Tim Burton appears in the credits as a producer. In an interview I heard with Chris Elliot recently, he mentioned Burton was initially on board to direct, and his finger prints are all over this movie. The lavishly, meticulously (and I have to assume deliberately) artificially designed sets and backdrops are so Burtonian, if he didn’t get a producer credit, he’d have had grounds for some sort of copyright infringement.
Interesting fact, with Cabin Boy and There’s Something About Mary, Elliot has twice been the central character in a scene about the virtues of “cleaning the pipes” in the lead up to a sexy encounter with a lady… If you know what I mean. A sexy, penis in vagina kind of sexy encounter with a lady… If you know what I mean. If that’s not in his IMDB Trivia section yet, it bloody well should be.