Staying up for late night TV shows like The Tonight Show or Late Night with David Letterman was a big deal when I was a kid, and one that was a rarity. About the only times I saw Letterman was when I was at my best friend’s house for a sleepover. That’s when I remember first seeing Chris Elliott. He would often do strange comedy bits on Letterman’s show in the 80’s. Little did I know then that he came from a big comedy family. His father, Bob Elliott, was half of the comedy team Bob and Ray. Year’s later, Elliott’s own daughter, Abby, would become a Saturday Night Live cast member…making him the first SNL cast member (he was on the show in 1994) to have a child follow in their footsteps. He’s also appeared in several movies, but rarely in the starring role. That is, except for this odd little film that was originally to be directed by Tim Burton (he ended up producing instead)…1994’s “Cabin Boy.”
The film follows Nathaniel Mayweather (Elliott), a rich young man who attends a private school. This is one of those live-in, Harry Potter type schools…he even wears a powdered wig. He is due to set sail on a luxury ship to Hawaii with his father, so he heads off to find the ship. He ends up in a small fishing village where he encounters a guy who wants to sell him a sock monkey (David Letterman in an uncredited cameo). He then points Nathaniel to the wrong ship, a fishing vessel called The Filthy Whore. After speaking with the cabin boy Kenny (Andy Richter), Nathaniel believes it’s some sort of pirate themed boat, and happily settles in.
The true crew of the ship (James Gammon, Brian Doyle Murray, Brion James, and Ritch Brinkley) are a nasty bunch and they are none too thrilled to have Nathaniel on board. They are even less thrilled when Nathaniel causes Kenny to end up overboard and lost at sea. So, Nathaniel ends up having to be the new cabin boy.
But Nathaniel is extremely annoying, so the crew looks for chances to get rid of him. At one point, they set him afloat on a raft being dragged behind the ship by a long stretch of rope. He stays on the raft for over a week and one point begins to hallucinate a visit from a talking, floating cupcake. You read that right folks! But that’s not all, when he ends up falling into the water, Nathaniel is saved by Chocki (Russ Tamblyn), a half-man half-shark.
Various other strange events occur after Nathaniel is brought back on board and The Filthy Whore makes it’s way through “Hell’s Bucket.” One day he find a beautiful young swimmer named Trina (Melora Walters) floating in the water. He drags her on board, thus ruining her attempt at setting a swimming record. He also battles an ice creature and later, finding that he lacks enough romantic prowess to impress Trina, goes to get his “pipes cleaned” courtesy of a multi-armed, blue-skinned sea witch called Cali (Ann Magnuson) who also happens to be married to a 50-foot tall salesman in a business suit.
“Cabin Boy” is one of those films where my opinion of it shifts from minute to minute. In some respects, the film really tests your endurance. I mean, I like Chris Elliott, but his character here is not likeable in any way. The human equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. It becomes hard to even crack a smile during moments that actually are kind of funny because the lead character is such an unwelcome presence.
On the other hand, I enjoyed the quirky nature of the film. I mean…shark-men, ice monsters, floating cupcakes…that stuff is kind of fun. We’ve even got Ricki Lake as the ship’s living figurehead. The whole piece takes place in a world that is sort of a mixture between old world and modern-day. It shouldn’t, but, for some reason, it kind of works. The look and feel of the sets and creatures certainly does show the influence of Tim Burton and that does help give the film a unique atmosphere.
In the end, “Cabin Boy” is severely lacking in it’s execution, but it’s also got a lot of “out there” stuff that you can’t help but enjoy. I guess that’s just a fancy way of saying that this thing has “cult following” written all over it.