Quiz Show Through the Looking Glass
of Cabin Boy
Adam Resnick wrote the screenplay for Death to Smoochy,
significant because he also authored and directed that 1994
essay on the detriments of being a "fancy lad,"
Cabin Boy. Cabin Boy exudes a particular dignity,
if that's the word: Even when we see the edges of the pool
in which it was filmed, it feels like an unvarnished vision,
for better or worse. Cabin Boy envisions coming-of-age
as embracing the pungency of masculinity, achieving a surrealist's
view of the transition from boy to man. This is roughly the
same theme as Chris Elliott's 1990 sitcom "Get a Life."
There is something rather oddly profound in the image of man-boy
Chris Peterson peddling his bicycle down suburban streets,
gleefully tossing newspapers, not a care in the world. "Get
a Life" and Cabin Boy are marked by the presence
of low budgetsthe world they inhabit is obviously, intentionally
artificial. On "Get a Life," Chris Peterson lives
comfortably in the womb of his parents, much of the humor
deriving from his dad's insistence that he get a job and move
out. Chris would wake up every day and declare that he was
going to be in a musical or be a food inspector, which never
worked out. The series begs a rather serious question: Why
should he get a job, or a life, for that matter? The whole
suburban world has been handed to him, it's not even real
anyway, and because of his mom's insistent smothering, he's
grown so dependent on her that cutting the cord might mean
instant death for the both of them.
Instead he artificially plays out these fantasies of "growing
up" and finding his own masculinity in a completely "safe"
environment. For his generation, there's a lot of truth to
that: "Coming-of-age" has become so overproduced
and sterilized that it's no longer real. It's not the real
world that's bizarreit's the fake world constructed
for him by his parents. So Chris Peterson invents these bizarre
scenarios by which to safely play out his masculinity. As
with Cabin Boy, sometimes these ideas take on mythological
proportions. My favorite episode of "Get a Life"
involved Chris' battle with a paper-delivery machine. The
paper boys were threatened to be replaced by a machine, so
Chris dresses up as a superhero (involving aluminum foil and
duct tape). The machine goes haywire, tossing papers through
windows (ala Modern Times), ending with Chris stopping
the machine as it careens toward a baby carriage.
Elliott, intentionally or not, tapped into some
basic truths about his generation, witness the article in
Newsweek last month about "Adultolescents."
Cabin Boy is genuinely theater of the absurd, not like
those bland Sandler comedies. Cabin Boy expresses the
absurdity of his generation's coming-of-age as a yearning
for the "smelliness" of manhoodthat the Gen
X world has become so sterile that they've all become "fancy
lads," their course in life directed by a set of materialistic
social dictates, happiness measured by the quality of their
iced cappuccino. I'm convinced that there's genius in this
film: My favorite scene is the one in which Chris Elliott
rides on top of his swimmer girlfriend (Melora Walters) like
she's a pair of water skisTrina herself is a "drifter,"
found, literally, drifting in the ocean while trying to swim
around the world. Her cynicism toward the "fancy lad"
gives way to love when the fancy lad is trained in the ways
of the Kama Sutra by a six-armed Ann Magnuson, thus giving
Trina a little direction in life as well. The result is this
bizarrely profound statement about Generation X:
On the land at the "fancy lad" school, he would
have lost his virginity to some clean, safe rich girl, married
her, and lived an antiseptic life running a hotel in Hawaii.
Instead, he rides the "Filthy Whore"the name
of their shipgets hazed by Brian Doyle-Murphy, Ritch
Brinkley, James Gammon, Brion James, and comes out as a new
man. Plus, Cabin Boy brings you one of the best cameos
in movie history: David Letterman asking Chris if he wants
to buy a monkey.
Andy Richter appears as a dock boy who declares,
"Captain says I'm dumb as a carp." The crew dances
like "harem girls." Brian Doyle-Murphy says, "Jesus
Christ in a dump truck." There's the half-man/half-shark,
the ice monster who gets melted by coffee, and, of course,
the tobacco spitting cupcake.
Cabin Boy is crude, but it's artIn it's own
way, Cabin Boy finds fundamental truths about the confusing,
cleansed existence of Generation X. That's more than I can
say for 90% of "comedies" is see these days, and
a whole hell of a lot more than I can say for any Adam Sandler
Death to Smoochy, however, reveals that Adam Resnick
needs to go back to the zero-budgets. He tries to create the
same sort of surrealism by placing vile creatures in cute
costumes, but it doesn't work because the humor is so obvious.
His idea of comedy is to let the word "fuck" be
sandwiched between two words it shouldn't be, like "squeaky
fucking clean." We hear Robin Williams yell, "Rainbow
Fucking Randolph" at least a dozen times. I won't say
that I didn't laugh, like when Smoochy teaches the kids, through
song, "My stepdad isn't mean, he's just adjusting."
But neither Resnick or Devito measure these characters correctly.
They neuter Catherine Keener by swiping her acerbic wit; John
Stewart just talks about ratings; Robin Williams sells every
line like a heart attack, but is reduced to recycling his
own material from Good Morning, Vietnam.
As for Smoochy himself, Ed Norton is supposed to represent
archetypal goodness. He loves children and health foodhe's
the anti Channel One, the "news" outfit that gives
schools free televisions and VCRs in exchange for fifteen
minutes of class time to deliver Skittles ads. Death to
Smoochy wants to be a bizarre black comedic treatise on
ethics, but it's so inconsistent with its characters that
it doesn't achieve genuine conflict. The conflicts are all
plot based, not character based, so the movie ends up trying
to pack way too much plot into too small a space. This leaves
us with montages that substitute for character development
and set pieces that lack impact. The film wants to be a surreal
Quiz Showa Faustian portrait of greed in corporate
America. But compare, say, the "Smoochy on Ice"
scene to Ralph Fiennes' confession in his father's classroom
in Quiz Show. Quiz Show is so complex and well-acted
that the scene has weight; Death to Smoochy begs for
laughter because it says "fuck" a lot. It all adds
up to very little, and I would suggest to Adam Resnick that
he get away from moralist essays (He also wrote the John Travolta/Lisa
Kudrow dud Lucky Numbers about the Pennsylvania lotto
scam) and get back into the surrealist world of "Get
a Life," the world in which Chris Elliott's brain is
mutated by a nuclear accident and he becomes a spelling genius,
only to misspell "pants" at the big spelling bee.