We gave it a D
In a few years, we may count ourselves lucky that The Beverly Hillbillies (PG) is one soggy noodle of a comedy. If this laughless throwaway does half as badly at the box office as it deserves to, it could hasten the end of a less than inspiring trend: the transformation of beloved baby-boomer sitcoms into major motion pictures. Directed by Penelope Spheeris with nary a hint of the trash exuberance she displayed in Wayne’s World, The Beverly Hillbillies takes half an hour to set up what the TV show did in its theme song (that’s right—we’re treated to full-scale dramatic reenactments of Jed shootin’ at some food, what the kin folks say, loadin’ up the truck, and so forth). By the time the Clampetts make it to Beverly Hills, it’s clear that, with the exception of Cloris Leachman’s mean-as-a-polecat Granny, the all-new cast members are lightweights compared with the originals. In other words, this is a movie that makes you long for the brilliant comedy stylings of Max Baer Jr.
Having wasted a healthy share of my youth glued to programs like The Beverly Hillbillies, I certainly recognize the temptation to turn these shows into resplendent cultural touchstones. I mean, just think of the movies they could make! Imagine Gilligan’s Island with Robert Downey Jr. as Gilligan and Brian Dennehy as the Skipper! Or I Dream of Jeannie with Patricia Arquette and Andrew McCarthy! For that matter, why stop at sitcoms? Wouldn’t it be thrilling to see John Lithgow as Dr. Smith in a big-screen Lost in Space?
Danger, Will Robinson! We all retain a soft spot for the trash of our childhood, but let’s face it: These were terrible shows. They weren’t very funny, and even many of us who watched them didn’t think they were funny. We watched them for two reasons: because they were what was on, and because they were…weird. Surreal in their very stupidity. Arresting in the fact that stuff this crazy-dumb was actually being piped into our homes by major television networks.
Like Green Acres and Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies pitted a crew of zany simpleton hicks against the forces of sanity. Inevitably, sanity lost. The same formula, minus the white-trash factor, was employed in Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, Get Smart, and The Addams Family. (Sanity was the exasperated middle-class authority figures who just didn’t get it: Mr. Drysdale, the Skipper, Major Nelson, the Chief, and—trapped in his cornpone Kafka nightmare—poor, misunderstood Oliver Douglas.) What gave these shows a plastic glimmer of comic resonance was the fact that their celebration of demented eccentricity chimed with the druggy, anything-goes temper of the late ’60s. These were hit series in a society that was trying to adjust to some markedly peculiar behavior patterns.
Well, we’ve adjusted. I was no big fan of 1991’s The Addams Family, but that movie got by on flashes of macabre wit. The Beverly Hillbillies, on the other hand, is just a toothless nostalgia trip. Without the original cast members, we’re watching a cardboard imitation of what was cardboard to begin with. As Jed, Jim Varney, the horse-faced dufus from the Ernest movies, has been turned into a warmhearted dad, a straight man. He’s likable, but who wants a levelheaded Jed? Buddy Ebsen, at least, had the gift of seeming courtly and foolish at the same time. As Elly May, Erika Eleniak is an airbrushed sexpot, and Diedrich Bader, as Jethro, lacks Baer’s hyperactive enthusiasm. Even Lily Tomlin’s mellow Jane Hathaway seems innocuous next to Nancy Kulp’s original, with her nauseated finishing-school enunciation. The plot, which features Lea Thompson as a gold digger scheming to marry Jed, is like something you’d catch on the USA Network at 4 a.m. But enough of beating a dead possum. After sitting through The Beverly Hillbillies, I now realize that the best tribute anyone can make to the pop detritus of our childhood is to let it rest in peace. D