Films adapted from plays have these weird vibes about them. While very dialogue and character-heavy, setting and minor characters don't act as nothing more but shallow attempts at fleshing out an otherwise thin story. However, great performances and a solid script are usually enough to at least win back some appreciation for weak screenplays. Does that come off as confusing? Possibly.
How fitting, given that that's how Drunkboat left me after the credits began to roll.
After being left behind in a drunken haze in a bar's alleyway, Mort (John Malkovich) decides to visit his estranged sister, Eileen (Dana Delany), in the Chicagoan suburb of Morton Grove. Ostracized from Eileen for being an alcoholic, Mort attempts to prove his sobriety while he stays at their childhood home with Eileen and her sixteen-year-old son, Abe (Jacob Zachar). Abe, obsessed with the dream of travelling across the world in a boat, schemes to purchase a boat from Mr. Fletcher (John Goodman) while Eileen is away. However, Fletcher is more of a hustler, ready and willing to scheme Abe out of his money by selling him a dilapidated boat.
The preceding paragraph is more or less a summary of the film's plot. However, awkwardly mixed into the film are Mort's confusing childhood flashbacks, a subplot about Eileen's missing oldest son, the unfortunately-named Moo (who is the same mysterious figure in the beginning of the film), and one of Fletcher's business associates (Skipp Sudduth) weirded out by his son's antics with his girlfriend. It's implied in the film that Moo's chance encounter with Mort is what convinces him to revisit Eileen, but it's so confusingly drawn out and never overtly stated that you don't realize they're one in the same until the end of the film. Meh.
Given that the film is based off of a play, a lot of the film's progression takes place in long, dialogue-filled scenes with characters "pairing off" with one another: There's Fletcher and Earl; Abe and his friend, Dave (Brian Deneen); Mort and Eileen. There are moments where they intertwine and intermingle, but the majority of the film progresses amongst these pairs. The problem with this is how synthetic it feels; there's no natural flow that necessarily drives the characters to interact with others beyond their partner, save for the obvious triangle of Mort, Abe, and Eileen. Because of this, the plot stagnates. Mort serves as the protagonist (of sorts), and his detachment from his family is reflected by the overall detachment I felt while I watched the film. I simply couldn't find a reason to empathize with the characters...
More importantly, Abe's naivety is thoroughly unbelievable. Zachar's in his mid-20s, but his portrayal of a character a decade younger than him comes off as too fake. He's unfortunately naive and dimwitted. I can't quite point out whether this is because of Zachar's performance or because of the script, but his character feels so fake and oblivious. Abe is too forcefully chipper and optimistic; I don't think there's a moment in the film where he didn't have a grin plastered on his face.
However, Malkovich and Goodman are talented veterans and know what's expected of them. What more can I say about them that hasn't been said? As I said previously, Malkovich plays a detached, recovering alcoholic, which equates to him playing this "floaty" character that never really feels... "real." Simply put, he simply doesn't fit. That's not to say that Malkovich's performance is terrible; quite the opposite, in fact. Goodman's role as the "antagonist" fits what you'd expect of Goodman in a villainous role: He has an infectious, conniving laugh with a smile he can hide behind that disarms the gullible.
Drunkboat premiered at the Chicago International Film Festival 2 years ago and is just now finding distribution. It's hard for play adaptations to translate well into a feature-length film. The dialogue and script have to be completely tight and sound, while the settings and scenario must be tweaked in order to justify the transition. Unfortunately, Drunkboat doesn't accomplish either.