``Beverly Hillbillies'': A gently comical embarrassment of riches

MOVIES

October 15, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Crude, that is.

"The Beverly Hillbillies," Penelope Spheeris' loving tribute to the amiable mid-'60s hillbillies-in-pig-heaven television series, will win no awards for subtlety, sophistication, delicacy or refinement. But it doesn't have to.

Set square in a brightly lit idiot universe, it's about good-hearted people whose innocent ignorance turns everything they touch or every word they utter into massive chaos. Trusting, sweet, slow to take offense, loyal to a fault, the dead-on literalness of their earnestness makes them catastrophic comic lightning rods in a faster, slicker, more provisional world.

Yet what distinguishes the comedy is the strangest and most welcome of values: it's dignity. Jim Varney's Jed Clampett is a surprising creation; he's not the rubbery-faced moron man-child of the Ernest P. Worrell films, a creature so encompassingly stupid that he appeared to have the brain and central nervous system of a walnut. Spheeris, the cult director who hit the big time in "Wayne's World," has encouraged Varney to a more restrained performance: he's like Sam Elliott as a Louis L'amour character, an elegant, dignified, improbably attractive man who clings to his values of family and loyalty no matter what vicissitudes his riches call up.

It's true that the movie traffics in the most familiar of stereotypes: rural white Southerners as rubes who cannot figure out, for example, how to bowl. Cousin Jethro's solution: Roll the ball down the gutter, then race down the alley and throw yourself into the pins before the ball gets there. This would be the snippiest of class baiting were it not for the disarming performance by Diedrich Bader as the Abner-like cousin, a young man so devoid of inner mental activity that his face and bright eyes take on an almost angelic respect. He has the sectional density of depleted uranium and his glistening eyeballs open wide to expose an infinite nothingness as vast as space itself.

But the secret of the series and of the movie is that this sweet contempt cuts both ways: If the Clampetts are ignoramuses, the swells among whom they find themselves are equally moronic, but less forgivably so, because the source of their simpleness is their greed. Thus the swanky banker Drysdale (played here by the ever-smarmy and wheedling Dabney Coleman) and his ambitious yet creepily androgynous assistant Miss Hathaway (Lily Tomlin doing a good imitation of the great Nancy Culp) are continually stripped of their airs by their desperate need to satisfy the ultra-rich parvenues who, under normal circumstances, wouldn't even register on their radar screen. If one were seeking a Ph.D in popular culture, one might argue that this equated into a critique of post-modern capitalism. Since I'm not, I'll leave it at this: It's pretty darn funny.

The movie is at its best in re-creating the origins of the Clampetts. Arkansas backwoodsman Jed is out hunting cottontails one day, takes a shot with his double-barreled bunnybuster, and the known world explodes in geysers of the darkest petroleum. Soon, he's leased the rights to "the largest oil deposit in North America" for a billion dollars, loads the family mutants, chickens and crone into the back of a Model T truck and heads off for Beverly Hills.

His sponsor Drysdale is reduced to childish dependence on him (on his billion dollars, that is), which translates into indulgence of his every whim and notion, no matter how absurd. But as these two men interpret reality at slightly different speeds through slightly different lenses, they are continually missing the meaning of each other.

The Clampetts are sweetly imagined, with Erika Eleniak of "Under Siege" as a bouncy yet fundamentally decent daughter (though a bit mature, shall we say, for the high school Spheeris deposits her into), and Cloris Leachman in an antic turn as Granny. As long as the movie meanders its innocent way through the homes of the rich and famous, breaking vases or going human bowling, it's quite funny. Alas, someone must have noticed there wasn't much story.

The one that the posse of screenwriters eventually came up with isn't much, and it gives entirely too much time to the least amusing cast member, Lea Thompson, as a conniving con woman trying to marry Jed for his billions with the assistance of Rob Schneider, a crooked clerk in Drysdale's bank. Schneider has a great fall-down-go-boom sequence in the film's opening moment, but then his weird physical gift for comedy is largely forgotten and Thompson takes over, behind an absurd French accent. It's too bad.

In the end, the movie is ceded almost entirely to Lily Tomlin's bounding Jane Hathaway, with her low-rider stride and her considerable repertoire of facial mannerisms that recall classic Ernestine, her endlessly self-satisfied telephone operator. Tomlin proves that where others hath a will, her Jane hath a way, as she moves to defuse the scam that Thompson and Schneider have cooked up. As plot gambits go, this one is far from great, but it gives a great screen comedian a chance to shine. Plus, she gets to drive a big-wheeled truck over a fleet of BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. As the kid next to me in the theater said, "Oooo, dead Beamer. Cool!" My sentiments exactly.

"The Beverly Hillbillies"

Starring Lily Tomlin, Cloris Leachman, Jim Varney and Dabney Coleman

Directed by Penelope Spheeris

Released by Twentieth-Century Fox

Rated PG

***

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