Ernest Saves Christmas

December 22, 2010

The fact that Ernest Saves Christmas has opened a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving means either a) Touchstone Pictures is confident the film will play well though the holiday season, or b) Touchstone Pictures hopes the movie will make some quick money before people realize what a stinker it is, and then disappear so screens will be left open for more promising movies.

I don’t know which of these possibilities is true, but I’m leaning toward the latter. Like its predecessor, Ernest Goes to Camp, Ernest Saves Christmas is a ramshackle collection of gags centered on the cartoonlike character from TV ads, Ernest P. Worrell (the guy whose catch phrases are “Hey Vern!” and “Know Whut I Mean?” as if you didn’t know).

Ernest Goes to Camp had a surprisingly good opening weekend last summer, though business dropped off quickly. Perhaps the same fate is in store for Ernest Saves Christmas, in which the putty-faced handyman Ernest (played by Jim Varney) is instrumental in preserving the happiness of millions of children all over the world.

That’s because Santa Claus (Douglas Seale) is calling it quits, and handing over the reins and reindeer to a successor. But because of a series of misunderstandings, Santa’s not going to complete the hand-off, unless Ernest brings Santa his magic toy bag, corrals the reindeer, and picks up the elves at the airport. (This is as embarrassing to write as it is to read.)

All of this is an excuse to put the camera in regular, disturbing proximity to Varney’s face, which is landscaped like Colorado, and let him wiggle and grimace. To be sure, this technique drew some laughter from the younger people in the preview audience, who seem to be Ernest’s target crowd.

Incidentally, Ernest Saves Christmas contains an interesting social aside. When Santa tells how he can circumnavigate the globe and deliver toys in a single night, he notes that he excludes, quite naturally, those children “whose cultural beliefs don’t include Santa Claus” (simple Christian non-believers still get presents, as I understood it). I believe this is a revelation, though something tells me Ernest is probably immune to the subtlety of the distinction.

First published in the Herald, November 18, 1988

Whenever you’d see Jim Varney outside his Ernest character, he always seemed to have something potentially interesting going on – or perhaps I am responding to the inherent poignancy of the actor who gets identified with a single outlandish role (completely irrationally, I root for Paul Reubens whenever he takes a part that doesn’t require him to be Pee-wee Herman). In any case Varney died at 50, so Ernest it mostly shall remain.