"Ernest Goes to Camp" (which opened citywide Friday) is the kind of movie that could drive you to Chinese Checkers, or Saturday nights at the laundromat. A few more on this level might help bring back radio drama or flea circuses.
It's an excruciating experience. Designed as a vehicle for Jim Varney's character, Ernest Worrell--wildly popular on Southern TV commercials--it makes movies like "Meatballs" look like models of dry, sophisticated, urbane wit.
Varney's Ernest looks a bit like Huntz Hall, sounds a bit like Strother Martin and behaves like a cross between Don Knotts' Barney Fyfe and Jim Nabors' Gomer Pyle. His forte consists of nonsensical babbling, stumbling and grotesque grimaces. While grimacing, Ernest often faces the camera and twists himself into such contortions that he seems perpetually in the center of a fish-eye lens.
In this star vehicle, Ernest is a good-hearted, accident-prone nitwit custodian at a summer camp, suddenly pressed into service as camp counselor for a cabinful of juvenile delinquents. The delinquents are hard-boiled but lovable. Ernest is idiotic but lovable. The other campers are sadistic--but ultimately, they're lovable too. There are also lovable camp owners who are swindled into signing away their land by a decidedly unlovable corporation head, played by John Vernon.
For 90 minutes we get to watch Varney's Ernest run around flopping his arms like a chicken, mug, fall on his face, fall off ladders and fall over backward. Every once in a while, when he's done something especially stupid, he tries to distract our attention by pointing to a non-existent rabbit and then running away.
Ernest has a pet turtle who bites his nose. In one of his big scenes, he gets stung by fire ants and covered with poison ivy. (Ernest, not the turtle.) At the end, everything gets blown up, and, for a climax, Ernest falls off a ladder and the Camp Kickaree sign falls on him.
For comic relief--from all this comedy--we get two moronic camp cooks who babble, drool, prepare nauseating dishes, force each other to eat them and wind up throwing all their food on the bad guys with some kind of Rube Goldberg contraption. Is it only 60 years since the heyday of silent comedy? Only 30 years since the heyday of the Three Stooges? Their slapstick secrets seem as lost as the culture of the Incas.
"Ernest Goes to Camp" is rated PG, which means that neither Ernest nor the turtle is nude; we can't be sure about the rabbit. Anyway, as our grandmas once told us, if you can't say something nice, you shouldn't say anything at all. So probably this movie shouldn't be reviewed at all--even though, actually, there is one nice thing about it. Iron Eyes Cody appears in a large supporting role as the owner of Camp Kickaree or Kickapoo or Kickaround--or whatever it's called.