Ernest Goes to Camp

August 11, 2011

Folks, we live in strange times indeed. The global capabilities of modern mass media have created the existence of instant pop celebrities, odd people who dash into the spotlight and establish their peculiar status. You don’t know where they came from, and you don’t know why they’ve come. What other world could spawn Pee-wee Herman and Max Headroom, Fawn Hall and Donna Rice, and the queen of them all, Vanna White?

And, unavoidably, one Ernest P. Worrell. He is the ubiquitous, amply-beaked, putty-faced character who appears in approximately one zillion television ads, accosting his unseen neighbor (“Hey, Vern!”) with a limitless variety of products.

Ernest is the creation of actor Jim Varney and advertising executive John R. Cherry III, who have parlayed a brilliant advertising scheme (instead of national ads, Ernest does dozens of regional spots) into something like a phenomenon. And now, into a movie.

Ernest Goes to Camp puts the hapless Worrell in a formulaic vehicle about the woes of a moronic camp counselor. Every Hollywood feel-good cliché is touched, in including the evil land developers who want to level Camp Kikakee, the tough-but-good-hearted youngsters who grow into men under Ernest’s tutelage, the wise old Indian (Iron Eyes Cody, another TV commercial icon) who knows the true ways of the forest, and, of course, a lot of crazy kids. Plus a bunch of snapping turtles, fire ants and too many gags about disgusting food.

Now, even if you like Ernest on those commercials, you’d have to admit that 90 minutes of him could stretch pretty thin. In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, a surreal character was given the proper surreal surroundings, and an imaginative tone was found. Ernest Goes to Camp takes a similarly bizarre character, but they’ve tried to shoehorn him into a normal story.

This means we have the spectacle of Ernest getting choked up, giving inspirational speeches and—so help me—singing a teary tune that goes, “Gee, I’m glad it’s rainin’.” There’s some irony involved (Ernest sings the song to his turtle) but the success of the Ernest character in the commercials depends on his braggadocio and his knack for self-destruction. When sentimentality arrives, Ernest falls flat.

He’s left with some occasionally funny sophomoric humor (his advice on forest trekking becomes a philosophy of life in general: “Don’t pick at it, or it will never heal”). Co-creator Cherry also directed the movie, without much feel for how to build comic sequences. The whole thing is paced as though it were a—well, a television commercial. Which, until he decides to write his autobiography or record his own album, will have to remain Ernest P. Worrell’s natural medium.

First published in the Herald, May 1987

That first paragraph certainly sounds terribly innocent now. Reality TV has made someone like Vanna White look downright accomplished. It says something about America that this totally sincere movie could come only a few years after the sarcastic, echt-Seventies Meatballs and Bill Murray’s delivery of the greatest camp-counselor speech ever. Ernest Goes to Camp was a surprise hit, spawning a few sequels and keeping the spirited Jim Varney in the role whether he liked it or not.