'Encino Man' is primitive entertainment, from plot to message

May 22, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Encino Man" is really about Cro-Magnon Man but, alas, it feels as if it were written by Neanderthal man.

Crude and loopy, it follows as a couple of L.A. teen-agers come across a cave man trapped in the ice, free him, and haul him off to Encino High, where, they believe, his coolness will rub off on them, and as he rises through the school's vicious caste system, so will they.

One big problem: the movie can't really make up its own mind who its star is. Sean Astin is the nominal headliner, but he's not very interesting and his character is conceived in such rancid, greedy, shallow terms nobody cares about him. Pauly Shore, famous from MTV as a "veejay", is a likely candidate, but the script isn't really written to showcase him either, and he too frequently feels like a passerby. He mumbles an argot so dense with Valleyspeak and weird animal sounds (weasels, for example) that he could have come himself from the ice age. Brendan Fraser, in the title role, is agreeably goony but he's so remote from sympathy by his lack of language that he's much easier to watch than to treasure.

With a nod to John Hughes, the movie offers an upbeat, hopelessly idealized "message" that serves as a milksop to critics but is so, like, totally unreal no teen will take it seriously. The movie suggest that the secret to "coolness" is to "be yourself." Indeed: Encino Man's rise in the school coolness club is exactly related to the degree of isolation he has from social expectations. Having no impulse control, he simply does what he wants with utter certitude, and the poor wretched American kids, broken on a wheel of peer-pressure, yearning, self-doubt and pimples, treat this as utter charisma itself.

I also liked it when he ate a frog.

The movie has some energy, and when Fraser is employing his impressive gifts as a physical comedian it can be quite funny. But here's a discovery that is profoundly depressing: director Les Mayfield and producer George Zaloom are the geniuses who put together the brilliant documentary "Hearts of Darkness," tracking Francis Coppola's battle with "Apocalypse Now." Talk about going from the sublime to the subhuman!

'Encino Man'

Starring Sean Astin and Pauly Shore.

Directed by Les Mayfield.

Released by Hollywood Pictures.

Rated PG.

** 1/2

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