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'Ernest Goes to Camp'

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 23, 1987


John R. Cherry III
Jim Varney;
Victoria Racimo;
John Vernon;
Iron Eyes Cody;
Lyle Alzado
Parental guidance suggested

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The mental age of the new film "Ernest Goes to Camp," featuring Jim Varney as Ernest P. (the P stands for "Powertools") Worrell, is about 13 -- that is, the age when the side-splittingest thing in the world is fake vomit or a whoopee cushion or any joke made at the expense of your little sister.

But "Ernest Goes to Camp" is not a full-tilt grossout. In fact, on the relative scale of young-teens-at-camp movies, it's pretty gentle stuff.

Dressed in his signature denim vest, gray T-shirt and platypus-billed cap, Ernest looks a little like Daffy Duck, but without feathers -- he's his own cartoon likeness -- and the same sort of rampant bad luck that plagues Daffy bedevils Ernest, too. He's a sort of walking zero, the definitive sad sack; standing right in front of you, he's missing in action. To say that Ernest is accident-prone is an understatement. The physical world is in rebellion against him. Everything he touches -- golf carts, ladders, nature in all its various forms and guises -- becomes his sworn enemy. Life, alas, is not his friend.

But if Ernest is a dopey hayseed, he's an eager one. His goal is modesty itself -- to become a full-fledged counselor at a boys' summer camp named Kamp Kekakee (pronounced with a stutter: K-K-Key). Ernest has a mission: "Shaping and molding youthful minds into a focused world view." And no one has ever been more ill-suited to the task.

Although the film is little more than a slapstick showcase for the nosey-neighbor character Varney has played in TV commercials, it's not the slapped-together piece of work you might expect. John R. Cherry III, who created the Ernest character and directed Varney in his commercials -- and served as director and cowriter here -- has some sense of how to set up a gag onscreen, and he's got a feel for how to draw on his performers' strengths. As a result, the movie is fairly inoffensive, and younger kids may get a real boost out of its us-against-the-world spirit. It's not as off-the-wall funny as "Meatballs" (which, even with Bill Murray's hairy-strawberry performance, wasn't one of the movies' prouder moments); it's lacking that movie's funky impudence. In its place, there's an almost naive quality. Believe it or not, it's kind of like Ernest -- bumbling and big-hearted and one brick shy of a load. Ernest Goes to Camp, at area theaters, is rated PG.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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