“Drunkboat” premiered at the Chicago Film Festival on Friday, October 8th, and, despite its Chicago connections and a great cast, it had some problems.
The film’s cast includes John Goodman, John Malkovich, Dana Delaney, Jim Ortlieb, and 24-year-old Jacob Zachar, whose roles include Russell “Rusty” Cartwright on the ABC Family TV series “Greek.’
The performances by the cast were uniformly good, the story had its moments, and there were no glaring errors from Director of Photography Liss Ringler or from the man in charge of the music (Mark Ribot). The script (on which Director Meyers collaborated), was also unique in many ways — .not all of them good.
The script was disjointed, difficult to follow, and had problems with the chronology. The symbolism that the film tried to incorporate did not always work.
But the biggest problem was the use of items and settings that were out of synch with the time frame portrayed. There are numerous scenes of old cars (70’s vehicles) and the entire house screams “1963”, but, at one point, John Malkovich as Uncle Morty, the drunk, starts to ramble PTSD-Vietnam War fashion, which is not the era that would be correct if Uncle Morty were in Vietnam and it is now 15 years later. The phones are ancient looking. In fact, in another recent release (“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”) the gigantic cell phone that Michael Douglas is given back as he is released from prison serves to “set” the time in everyone’s mind. Here, the phones (among other things) disturb the correct chronology, and hearing the director say, “I was trying to stay away from mobile phones,” doesn’t really satisfactorily explain these discrepancies of the script.
This film starts out on the highway 45 miles outside of Michigan (Michigan is where many film-makers, including Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino,” go to make movies today, because of the state’s perks for filming there) with the phrase “a Highway 20 kind of thing” mentioned when “Moo,” the brother of actor Jacob Zachar, is picked up hitch-hiking away from his home in Detroit where he has left Mom Dana Delaney and brother Abe (Jacob Zachar). Moo is given a lift by Goodman and his accomplice (Jim Ortlieb) and hired to schlep some liquor bottles into a bar. (Earl’s place, owned by actor Skip Sudduth, of “Ronin” and “Third Watch.”)
The film’s title comes from an Arthur Rimbaud poem “The Drunken Boat,” but, for our purposes, the boat is an unseaworthy vessel that John Goodman as Fletcher and his partner (played by local Chicago actor Jim Ortlieb) have made a habit of selling to unsuspecting customers, holes and all. Goodman.the consummate con-man, — uses the boat ploy to avoid the scales on the highway as he peddles Cutty Sark to customers, using the rhyme, “It’s all I sell, It’s all I drink, It’s the only ship, that will not sink.”
John Malkovich’s character is Morty, a drunk working at Earl’s place (a tavern). Why he is wearing a mop on his head when we first see him is anybody’s guess. I hoped that it was going to be a plot device that would prevent John Goodman’s character of Fletcher from recognizing him, later on (during the boat purchase exchange), but that didn’t turn out to be correct.
Malkovich has some great off-the-topic ramblings, which do nothing to advance the plot. He talks about shooting chickens into a jet engine in Vietnam (*Note: this is where the chronology begins to break down), which seems to have caused him to feel guilt, as his friends in “the Infinity Five” from back home (but also now in Vietnam) died in the conflict, while Mort was firing fowl into a jet engine.
Bob Meyers directed the film, and, in a Q&A following the film, he gave answers to some of the questions that the audience had for him. (At one point, he asked, “Am I alienating anyone?” and concluded with, “I’m starting to feel like Bob Barker here.”)
In response to the comment about John Malkovich’s exceedingly weird dialogue (Q: “Where did John Malkovich’s dialogue come from? It was so original”) Meyers responded, “You think?) Meyers, who was wearing a cowboy hat when he entered, didn’t really explain the eccentric dialogue. Eccentric can be good — if it serves the plot. It’s not good to have eccentricity just for the sake of eccentricity. While Malkovich did a convincing job of portrayed the extremely weird Uncle Mortie, his dialogue was not always on point, and, while it was entertaining, it was amusing in the same way that the drunk guy at the party is entertaining when he puts a lampshade on his head and dances around. It didn’t serve this vehicle well. When Abe asks him repeatedly if he will sign for Abe’s purchase of the boat, and Malkovich goes off on another chicken tangent, you simply want to slap Morty and say, “Snap out of it!” (to steal a famous line from “Moonstruck”).
Yes, Malkovich’s dialogue was original. But at other times, it was just downright weird, (PTSD or no PTSD.) Meyers explained Malkovich’s involvement in this, Meyers’ first feature film, this way: “I’m very old friends with John Malkovich. I was down at his house and he saw the script and he wanted to play the part. Goodman was my first choice for Fletcher, but I didn’t think we could get him but it worked out.”
Someone in the audience actually brought up the fact that the phones looked absolutely anachronistic in the piece, and Meyers said, “I was trying to stay away from mobile phones. That’s why I used that car that was 25 years ago or so ago.” It’s good to know these things, but, next time, try to get it “right.”
Meyers also went on to explain that he really had been a member of a boys’ club called the Infinity Five in high school (he pointed out his brother in the audience) and that, “My mother filmed the Super Eight film on that block. We got the infinity symbol from a television series at the time, ‘˜Ben Casey.'” (The Super 8 movie film is intercut with other images in the film to good effect.)
A young boy, (nicely played by Jacob Zachar), waits until his mother (Dana DeLaney) is out of town and his derelict alcoholic Uncle Morty is in charge to buy a broken-down boat. Meyer explained, “I bought a boat when my parents were out of town and we sailed it in my back yard. It was stupid. I was Captain Bob.”
Meyers went on to say during the Q&A (of the Infinity 5 who are mentioned in the film by name), “Glenn’s not dead. He’s in Tampa. Maybe it’s the same thing.” (The line in the film regarding Glenn that Malkovich utters is, “He thought he was an orange juice can.”)
There is an unscrupulous con man (Goodman), assisted by another who wants to go straight (Jim Orlieb, who is currently in the Broadway production of Billy Elliot). Goodman is peddling Cutty Sark, but uses a broken-down boat (which he tows) to avoid being weighed on the highway scales as he travels. The unseaworthy boats are then sold to unsuspecting customers like Jacob’s character, the teen-aged Abe. (The bridge where the marina is supposedly located can be viewed off to the right as you drive Canal Street to Cermak Road).
Abe gets stuck with a lousy boat that is not seaworthy for his $440 (and you sort of wonder how such a smart kid can be so dumb). According to Goodman’s character of Fletcher, “This thing is gonna’ fill up with so much water so fast it’ll sink before it gets out of the gate. In fact, that is a safety feature.”
There is a climactic scene involving Abe and his best friend David (Brian Deneen—(who seemed completely superfluous, except as a “window” character to echo Abe’s thoughts and feelings) in Abe’s back yard, putting up the mast and “sailing” the boat during a violent thunderstorm. Uncle Mort (John Malkovich) is supposed to be supervising the boys and is planning a barbecue which will involve his first consumption of chicken in the past 30 years.
There are so many unclear and unanswered questions for Meyer’s first film that it’s difficult to know where to begin. The continuity of Malkovich’s scene(s) as a drunk working at “Earl’s” is marred when he wakes up in an alley with a chicken and blood on his hands, wearing a very nice overcoat and no longer sporting a mop on his head. By this time, we know that the young boy who wandered in to Goodman’s clutches is probably “Moo,” but we don’t know what happened to Moo for a very long time, and we don’t know why— when Mort goes to visit his sister (Dana Delaney— he isn’t more forthcoming about Moo’s visit to Earl’s place and what may have happened there.
Was Moo beaten to death with a baseball bat at Earl’s Place? Why does Mort show up with just Moo’s retainer and say nothing more to Moo’s worried mother, his sister ? Abe’s brother Moo took off following a bad case of wanderlust that both boys seem to share, but Malkovich (when he wakes up in the alley) with his totally new clothes, looks more like a confused businessman lost in the city than an inveterate drunk beaten and left for dead in an alley as he wanders off. There is no explanation for the symbolic chicken. [How many chickens, one wonders, wander alleys in suburban Detroit on a nightly basis?] The entire bit—symbolism or no symbolism— sets us up for a denouement that feels contrived.
There are many films that seem to want to go back to the director’s youth and revel in it or relive it. Two that come to mind are “The Big Chill” and/or “American Grafitti.” Having said that, those films still told a compelling universal story set within a certain clearly-understood specific time frame.Heck…an entire career was made of revisiting his youth in “Pretty in Pink” and “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and other such films by a Chicago native (the recently-deceased John Hughes), but those films still told entertaining (and not that enigmatic) stories that made sense. There were not a lot of confusing chronological issues that left the audience scratching its collective head(s), and that is just where the problems began.
The director said, in the Q&A after the film, “I wanted to go with those good memories of family. Same sidewalk across the street from my old house.” Deerfield High School shots. Super 8 film his mother shot interspersed with more current shots to establish a flashback effect. So, a stroll down memory lane has been established.
It takes more than a stroll down memory lane to intrigue audiences or else every single memoir self-published by every single putz in the Universe would make the New York Times Best Seller list.
Bob Meyers has directed 2 previous short films, but this is his first feature film. He says, “I learned a lot.” As a Chicago-specific film, “Drunkboat” has much to recommend it, just as “Chicago Overcoat” did last year at the Chicago Film Festival, (and in much the same way), but Meyers isn’t there yet. It’s a film from local talent and it’s a good first effort. But this film has a long way to go before taking the extremely credible performances, the music by Mark Ribot, the cinematography and weaving them into a coherent whole that will win universal acclaim and attention.