The Beverly Hillbillies

1993, Movie, PG, 93 mins

Review

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Based on Paul Henning's long-running (1962-71) sitcom, this big-screen expansion boasts one of the richest comic ensembles in recent memory, working well under Penelope (WAYNE'S WORLD) Spheeris, one of the hottest comedy directors of recent years, and a script that takes some chances with familiar comedy formulae. About all that's missing is a point.

Arkansas hillbilly widower Jed Clampett (Jim Varney, the rubber-faced Ernest P. Worrell) is a billionaire this time out. As the song goes (re-recorded for the film by original artist Jerry Scoggins), Jed's out one day "shootin' for some food, when up through the ground come a-bubblin' crude--oil, that is, Texas tea." Signing his rights away to an enormous oil company, Jed takes the advice of his sister to move his family to the Hills of Beverly and find a new wife who can bring some refinement to his rambunctious, ferociously blossoming daughter Elly May (Erika Eleniak of UNDER SIEGE). Along for the ride, as in the series, are Granny (Cloris Leachman) and dimwitted nephew Jethro (Diedrich Bader, the dimwitted "Searcher" in Spheeris' Fox network series "Danger Theatre"). Managing Jed's money in L.A. is shifty banker Drysdale (Dabney Coleman) and his ruthlessly loyal assistant Miss Jane Hathaway (Lily Tomlin). Drysdale's even shiftier underling, Tyler (Rob Schneider), and his gold-digging girlfriend Laura (Lea Thompson), have designs on Jed's billions. Laura palms herself off as a French governess for Elly May and later beguiles Jed into proposing marriage at his birthday party, where the entertainment is a concert by Dolly Parton. Granny uncovers the plot but is kidnapped by Tyler and Laura, who put her into a mental hospital. Taking time off from trying to interest Jethro, Miss Jane tracks down Granny with the help of crack private eye Barnaby Jones (original Jed Buddy Ebsen, reprising another of his TV incarnations). They storm the wedding at the last second. Tyler and Laura are taken safely into custody by Beverly Hills' finest, though Tyler leaves behind a lovestruck Jethrine, Jethro's twin "sister" also played by Bader.

HILLBILLIES sails most of the time on the goofy charm of its cast. Varney is surprisingly effective as Jed, as steady and laid-back as his Ernest character is vacantly frenetic. Leachman has the feisty cracker Granny nailed almost to the point of eeriness. Bader is as consistently amusing as Jethro as he is as "The Searcher," in both showcases combining a grimly empty-headed determination with a dogged disconnection from any recognizable reality. Eleniak is about as sweetly wholesome as any knockout blonde could be while stretching the seams of her tantalizingly frayed denim vests and cutoffs. Coleman has a cakewalk as Drysdale, the type of klutzy self-defeating semi-villain he's made his almost-exclusive franchise in films like 9 TO 5, in which he also co-starred with Tomlin and Parton. Schneider and Thompson are the film's weak spots, mostly due to curiously underwritten roles. But even with beefier writing, they probably couldn't have stopped Tomlin from stealing the film. She separates the good from the great with a performance that is nonstop inspired silliness. Despite that and even Spheeris' best efforts to sidestep comedy cliches--it's traditional for comedies to end with marriages; hers ends with two arrests and a heartbroken transvestite--an unmistakable air of listlessness overhangs this entire affair.

The original "Hillbillies" were, to some extent, the innocently twisted offspring of their time, when the neurotic 50s were giving way to the psychotic 60s. If it works at all, THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES functions as a curio for a tube-fed generation nostalgic for the good old days when TV was still a safe place to hide. (Profanity.) leave a comment

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