This review is part of a series in which the author watches all of the Ernest movies in order, even though some day he will die.
In my enterprise to watch all of the Ernest movies, I hope I’m not doing permanent damage to myself. I feel like a python trying to swallow an alligator. Things were going great until the alligator got a second wind and started kicking. And now it’s too late to regurgitate it.
If Ernest Goes to School isn’t the worst movie in the series, I dread what lies in front of me. I go into these films wanting them to be good, wanting to cut the distance I usually maintain between my emotions and the things I read, listen to and watch. I want to relax and let the funny man in the denim vest make me giggle like he did when I was a kid. But this movie made my eyes roll at three times their normal velocity.
It’s like going to see your favorite band play, and when you get to the venue, all the band members have been replaced by Chuck-E-Cheeze robots that play a tinny recording of the songs you came to hear. Except they’re not even good robots. They just kind of stand there blinking and twitching weirdly as their mouths open and close out of sync with the lyrics.
Ernest is a janitor at a high school on thin ice with the district because of its poor performance. A conniving bureaucrat who’s auditing the school tells the principal about a new rule stating that all school employees must be high school graduates. Ernest is not. Instead of firing him, the principal enrolls him as a student.
Things go predictably poorly for Ernest, as catastrophe and humiliation follow him from class to class. Then, uncomfortably Mengele-esque German science teachers Gerta and Bobby (Chuck must have bailed while the bailing was good) pull Ernest through a secret locker entrance into a room that contains a brain enhancement machine. It downloads reams of information into the user’s brain, making them hyper-intelligent. It transforms Ernest into a genius so long as he continually returns to the machine to be recharged before every class. Smart Ernest turns out to be a prick, and even though he excels to a position as star pupil, his arrogance alienates his friends. Eventually, Ernest’s jock bullies (one of them is Will Sasso) destroy the brain machine and Ernest has to face his graduation exam with the power of his own feeble mind.
The momentum built in Ernest Rides Again is here completely squandered. It seems like nobody involved, including Varney, really gave much of a sh*t, and were totally content to run on formula. The other movies weren’t James Joyce, but they definitely weren’t this flavorless garbage either.
There are only a few funny moments in the whole film, and most of them have to do with Ernest wearing thematic takeoffs on his standard costume. It doesn’t speak well for a movie when the wardrobe is funnier than the script.
Ernest Goes to School is like the fart a body releases after it dies. And it somehow manages to linger for 89 horrible minutes. It might be merely boring if it weren’t for the soundtrack, which is like someone set a paperweight on a keyboard’s “Souza March” demo button and walked away. The music, which is somewhere between New Orleans Brass and high school marching band, is incessant and unbearable. The fact that it’s technically relevant to one of the chaotic jumble of plot threads, of Ernest being the lead drummer in the school’s marching band, doesn’t diminish the pain.
Goes to School was the first direct-to-video Ernest movie, so I guess that explains some of it. But definitely doesn’t excuse it. Good writing is free. And it costs just as much to film committed performances as it is to film begrudging ones. I would be less ornery about this if Ernest movies weren’t so simple a thing. Ernest humor might be broad strokes, but at least with the other movies you get the sense that there’s a real person holding the brush. This one might as well have been written by Skynet.
I’m not shocked that it was so bad, I’m just disappointed. I hoped that the later Ernests would follow in the spirit of Gloombeam and Rides Again. Instead, it seems like the filmmakers got tired of reading the reviews that called their movies pandering, derivative and annoying and decided to make one that fulfilled people’s negative expectations out of pure bitterness.
I also question the wisdom of making a kid’s movie about school that basically says educated people are dicks. Distrust of books is one of the less savory recurring subtexts of the Ernest franchise, along with “women love spineless men” and “show us your midriff.”
Ernest Goes to School is a soulless amalgam of uninteresting storylines that lead nowhere good. It’s borderline unwatchable even for an Ernest apologist like me. They had a chance here to let Ernest grow with his aging audience and squandered it. There’s nothing tonally different between this, a movie about teenagers, and Ernest Goes to Camp, a movie about young children. It didn’t have to be Kids, but it’s also kind of weird that it’s a vacuum-sealed platonic wasteland where nary a ball is dropped. At the very least, they could have stuck to what works, which is compensating for dumb plots and bad acting with a shotgun-blast of short jokes. But why have lots of jokes when you can have three instead?
Head down to your local Goodwill and rummage up a copy if you want to add a little A/V spice to your S&M sex life. Or don’t, and we’ll forget I ever brought this movie up at all.