Ernest Goes to Camp (1987)

“You see these hands? Huh? Huh? You see them? If I put them in my pockets I will be arrested for concealing lethal weapons.”

Justin’s rating: I actually do know what you mean, Vern.

Justin’s review: With the death of comedian Jim Varney already 20 years in the past, his legacy as Ernest P. Worrell is starting to fade from pop culture’s fickle consciousness. And that’s a shame, because Ernest was perhaps one of the most wholesome slapstick characters ever put to screen. He was unrelentingly optimistic, prone to pratfalls, stuck on overacting, willing to don all sorts of disguises, and full of catch phrases like “Know whadda mean, Vern?”

Varney created the character back in 1980 for commercials, gradually working his way up to bringing the character into his own starring role in the 1987 Ernest Goes to Camp. Made for a skimpy $3 million, the film became an unexpected box office success and raked in over seven times its budget and kicking off a nine-film series that ran through the 1990s.

The movie begins at Camp Kikakee, where Ernest is a put-upon fixit man who has but a simple aspiration: to become a camp counselor in his own right. That’s going to be a problem, as pretty much nobody respects the guy. But when a group of juvies are brought to the camp as part of a program, Ernest gets his chance to lead — and lead he does, in his own bumbling, goofy way. These kids are supposed to be super-tough, but it’s the ’80s, so at best they’re caricatures of what writers thought tough kids might look or sound like. They aren’t very nice to Ernest at first, but his, er, earnestness eventually wins them over.

And I can see why, because Ernest is exactly the kind of camp counselor you’d actually want in your cabin. As I was watching this, I was thinking of how he really is doing a great job. He genuinely cares for the kids, is extremely patient with them, and is endlessly entertaining to watch — especially when he messes up. Which he does, frequently.

There’s some other stuff going on here, too. Movie tropes demand that there be a soulless corporation trying to buy or steal the camp lands for their own use, a runaway golf cart that makes occasional cameos, two camp cooks that make the most disgusting food known to man, and a little friendly rivalry between social groups.

It’s not sophisticated humor, mind you, but there’s a lot of energy spent here to get jokes on the screen — and a lot of that rests on the shoulders of Varney’s acting. He’s like your bizarre uncle that always has a nonsensical story on hand and a willingness to teach you something he has little idea how to do himself. Varney is simply funny as he goes about his various lessons and schemes. You may consider yourself too sophisticated to laugh at him… at first. But trust me, after a while, you’ll be chuckling even as you’re rolling your eyes. He doesn’t let any imaginary pride get in the way of being a comedian, and that actually opens the field up more than you’d think.

With plenty of summer camp overtones saturating this entire movie and a hearty bowl of laughs from which to dine, Ernest Goes to Camp is a classic that’d held up a lot better than you’d expect, even if it isn’t masterful filmmaking.

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