At the start of “Drunkboat,” Mort Gleason (John Malkovich) is abandoned at the bottom of a bottle, reduced to a near-catatonic stupor. He’s a forty-something drunken layabout who’ll either be seen wearing a mop on his bald pate for laughs, or lying on the floor passed out as the mop wears him. To say he has no memory of his family is to give him too much credit – the randomly erudite screwup is more often staring quizzically at his friends and enemies as if his reaction time was Cro-Magnon.
“Drunkboat” is based on a play, which somehow makes it easier to believe that his nephew is named Moo, and that Mort would somehow come face to face with the twenty-something in a bar in a chance encounter that rejiggers buried memories. Mort takes his cue to clean up (but not really), and heads back to sister Eileen’s (Dana Delany) suburban home to reconnect with family. Being that Mort is a walking disaster, it’s not unexpected that this wouldn't go smoothly, with Mort like a lost kitty as he arrives across the street from Eileen’s house, staring wistfully, terrified of how wrong a reunion can go.
There are thousands of people out there who have a Mort in their family, so while it may seem alien to some, it makes complete sense to others why Eileen does not venture across the street to rescue her brother. It makes even more sense that Mort would remain apparent, but distant. It seems, on the surface, to be a passive-aggressive attempt to remind his family that he still draws breath, but the fear implicit in his frozen demeanor comes from the wrecked confidence of a man lacking pride. One look at Malkovich’s distant, tragic face, and you know immediately that he’s learned to keep his distance, that family have told him everything he touches turns to shit. Probably verbatim.
Less familiar is the behavior of Abe, Eileen’s sixteen year old son. Abe supposedly has an explorer’s spirit and yearns to separate himself from his boring Chicago suburbs, even though his mother is clearly trying to maintain a household where a Mort is not welcomed. His plan involves the purchase of Karen II, a beat-up old sailboat that contradicts a genial suburban upbringing, though he seems fully aware that his mother will not allow it. Abe is played by Jacob Zachar, a 26 year old playing a decade younger, and he makes the mistake of playing a teenager as inherently dimmer. You can see the choices Zachar is making to not appear too aware or too bright, and it’s the sort of string-pulling that strips away the reality of a key character.
With an overly-trusting Eileen out of town, Abe accommodates Mort as family, with the intention to use him as a parental co-sign in order to purchase the vessel. The seller is the loquacious, scheming Mr. Fletcher, and though he doesn’t play a major role in the plot, he’s given a healthy share of screen time. Not just because of his memorably terse verbal sparring with associate Morley, but also, we imagine, because he’s played by a burly, intense, committed John Goodman. Longtime Goodman fans will recall a lot of his two-faced demeanor in this film from performances such as his raving lunatic of Coen Brothers’ past. He’s lost a considerable amount of weight in his old age, but his acting tools have been sharpened. Physically, he almost seems bigger, looming over the other characters. He only shares a brief moment with Malkovich’s Mort, but his bemused, borderline anthropological reaction is priceless. He does everything short of poke him with a stick.
“Drunkboat” is inspired by a play from writer-director Bob Meyer, in his first time behind the camera for a full-length film. As such, the dialogue’s rhythmic patterns appear to be preserved from the stage, leading to a truncated, artificial tempo that just doesn’t work. It remains a pleasure to see, in Malkovich and Goodman, two canny pros at the top of their game, even if Malkovich’s distant drunk comes from the nuttier end of his outsized performances. “Drunkboat” prioritizes stagebound theatrics over any inherently cinematic moments – one big climactic set piece seems like a budgetary compromise – though that’s a sometimes-admirable sacrifice with these sorts of vets around. [C]