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Drunkboat: Very Close to Home

November 30, 2010 | By | Add a Comment

Yolanda Green

The movie –originally a play– was filmed in the streets of Chicago, in the neighborhood were Meyer grew up. The film incorporates many autobiographical narratives from both Meyer and co-writer Randy Buescher, and even features home movie footage owned by Meyer’s mother. The scenic shots of Chicago, dynamic acting from John Malkovich and John Goodman, and witty dialogue are all elements that merge into a story about how people cope with separation, alienation, and moving on in life.

Directed by Chicago-born Bob Meyer, Drunkboat might be classified as a coming-of-age film, but turns out to be much more with its use of minimalistic storytelling. The film, screened at the 46th Annual Chicago International Film Festival, follows Vietnam veteran Mort Gleason (John Malkovich), who after years of drinking and stumbling from place to place, reconnects with his family after coincidentally running into one of his nephews. He returns to his sister Eileen (Dana Delany), and her son, Abe (Jacob Zachar), who dreams of traveling the world. Abe is determined to buy Kathy II, a boat that he believes will take him to unchartered land outside of the Chicago suburbs.

image from Seven Arts Pictures,

Although the movie wasn’t solely focused on Vietnam, themes about that time period were certainly present. Main character Mort Gleason’s struggle to find a place in his family seems to have a lot to do with his experiences in the war. Mort also talks briefly about his time at Vietnam as well as other veterans he knew. In an interview with, Meyer states, “My brother went to Vietnam, and I didn’t. And that really was the genesis of the story. Why did all my guys go and I didn’t? I had to deal with that in some kind of way. Was I politically astute or was I chicken? Luckily everybody came back. It wasn’t a Vietnam movie, but it was about the individuals who deal with that era.”

image from Seven Arts Pictures,

Perhaps the movie’s strongest characteristic was the sometimes disjointed dialogue that brought life to the film’s eccentric and quirky characters. For instance, duo Mr. Fletcher (John Goodman) and Morley (Jim Ortlieb) have several humorous moments of banter throughout the film, even one involving ordering pizza for dinner. Through such witty scenes, the screenplay doesn’t project obvious themes for the audience to read or decipher. Instead, the film tells a story and lays it on the table, as is. Brutal honesty within the film’s acting and writing makes the tagline, “lies have a way of finding the truth,” very appropriate.

Lies, of course, are far away from the truth. Therefore, even the tagline seems to hint at separation, a topic that the film revisits in different ways. Drunkboat spotlights each character, giving the audience a window into their world and into their desires. Through very intimate scenes, viewers are able to experience physical and emotional separation between all of the characters. For instance, Mort breaks away from his family, in particular, Eileen. Emotionally and mentally, Mort has gone through things that his sister probably won’t understand. He widens the gap between them with alcohol. Yet in the first, and maybe one of the more intriguing scenes between Mort and Eileen, Mort returns to her house and refuses to knock or ring the doorbell. He simply stands outside, a safe distance away from the door and waits for her to invite him inside.

Even though Mort is away from the door and at times some feet away from the house itself, everyone inside the house – Eileen, Abe, and Abe’s friend – react and wonder. Inside, the mood changes, even though Mort simply chooses to stand away from the door and wait. Perhaps this is the case for all of the characters in Drunkboat. Despite each character’s desires to get away, or even stay a safe distance away from things emotionally and/or physically, their actions affect each other. Sometimes the humor of Drunkboat emerges even when conversations feature characters often not communicating on the same plane. Everyone is disconnected on some level.

Ultimately, the film takes the audience on a journey into the worlds of a few people in suburban Chicago but never allows the audience to experience everything about them. Viewers are only able to experience them in shades, vague images, metaphoric poetry, or the reflection in a character’s eyes. Still, the film presents each world, no matter how far apart, intertwining in surprising and ironic ways which provides Drunkboat with enjoyable charm and an intriguing tale.


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