Drunkboat is a “small” movie that plays like a mawkish, Friedberg/Seltzer riff on a small movie. The script and scenery are freshly prepped for star John Malkovich, playing a bottomed-out drunk named Mort, struggling to reconnect with his sister after seeing her son beaten in a Detroit bar. The above-the-title presence of Malkovich and John Goodman, playing a huckster majoring in whisky bootlegging, lends Drunkboat a requisite cachet that director Bob Meyer seems keen to spoil with his interminably flat script (adapted from his own play, which is a fine way to ensure the normal authorial checks and balances are forsaken entirely) and hackish direction.
One morning, Mort arrives on the stoop of his sister’s (Dana Delany) suburban Chicago home. Idling outside bashfully like a muddy dog, he stares blankly toward the door until being properly invited inside. The sister promises him a temporary home, provided he keep off the booze. (Meyer establishes his redemptive hero’s alcoholism by introducing him shuffling around a bar wearing a mop on his head, an image that’d be laughable were it not so thoroughly excruciating to watch.) When she cuts out for a few days, Mort mends fences with his nephew, Abe (Jacob Zachar, a twentysomething playing a dimwitted doof of a 16-year-old). Abe exploits the wide parental berth and uncle’s absentminded generosity by effectively duping him into singing a bill of goods for a waterlogged dinghy—hawked by Goodman’s Mr. Fletcher—on which he plans to sail away into the Atlantic with his best friend. The saccharine folksiness of their Huck Finn-ish scheme is of course ludicrous for two post-millennial middle-American teenagers, but it hardly seems to matter in a film where characters bear names like “Moo,” people speak in dumbed-down Mametian aphorisms, and fates commingle and coalesce like, well, someone was very deliberately plotting it.
Drunkboat’s nothing if not a showcase for Malkovich’s considerable talents, and he attacks the ambling monologues laid out for him with a routine aplomb. As the actor drifts from one foggy-headed soliloquy to the other, Meyer’s camera lingers, occasionally cutting to other characters staring, rapt, mouths agape, as if saying, “Look at the big actor acting.” But pros like Malkvoich and Goodman don’t so much elevate this off-off-off-Broadway material as much as they get mired in it, wading through the slop of the script, embarrassed by Meyer’s flippant display of murky, slow-motion cinematography and leftfield music cues (tin drums? In Illinois?). The film’s lousiness even calls into question its stars dubious motivations, their signing on to a self-serious stage adaptation in order to rejuvenate their thespian cred.