A "trial by campfire."
Every now and again, an actor who made his or her name on a hit TV show—David Caruso, George Clooney—decide to kick things up a notch and desert said TV show and become a movie star. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Caruso fled back to the safe haven of television on CSI: Miami and Clooney is one of the top box office draws around. Shelley Long was one of the first to do this, leaving the super hit Cheers to go into movies. Unfortunately, she had worse taste in picking projects than a colorblind person picking out curtains. Though Troop Beverly Hills is not the most awful movie around, it was not up to her talent. Is it still a good watch for family time? Columbia TriStar hopes so with its recent DVD release.
Facts of the Case
The Neflers are almost kaput. Freddy (Craig T. Nelson, TV's Coach) made a fortune on his muffler stores, but while his pocketbook fattened, so did Phyllis' (Long) closet. Freddy contends that Phyllis lost her depth and spirit and became a superficial Beverly Hills housewife. This is not difficult to discount, as Long is often clad in hideous outfits that only the rich could afford in the '80s. To prove her husband wrong, Phyllis takes over as troop leader of her daughter Hannah's (Jenny Lewis, Pleasantville) neglected Wilderness Girls group. She throws herself into it and, encouraged by the disdain of regional leader Velda Plendor (the funny, sergeant-esque Betty Thomas, director of The Brady Bunch Movie), goes full-throttle to change the lives of just about everyone involved—and maybe get her husband back.
The '80s screwball comedy is now a classic—not for its wit, its way with dialogue, or directorial skill—no, the '80s comedies have something else: kitsch. Because Troop Beverly Hills dealt with the very rich, I got an eyeful of pouf-y skirts, loud colors, and untold amounts of cheesy art prints and mauve furniture. It was quite fun.
Story-wise, the movie is a trifle. However, there are some pretty good actors here. Long has depth and emotion, and she desperately shows it off whenever possible. She manages not to become a caricature, especially towards the end of the movie, when her chain-smoking champagne-drinking habits give way for a fundraising, den-mothering type of gal. Her husband was right: One-note people are boring. In the end, Long does good by herself, even if the film itself is awfully cheesy.
The dialogue isn't so bad, but the plot takes a few rote turns. Most horrifying of all is when the troop tries to beat Velda's troop at selling cookies, and gives a street performance of a pop song especially written for them (it's all about cookies!). There is a ten-year-old girl in a Tina Turner wig lip-synching to a voice that has to be five years older than her, and other Wilderness girls dancing, to the cheesiest '80s pop tune you ever did hear. It was pretty nauseating, and it's the stuff '80s comedies were made of.
As Phyllis really starts to care about the girls, the movie becomes tenderer and a bit more real. There's no happy-tied-in-a-bow ending, but a sweet one, and I appreciated that. The last act, which is capped off by the do-it-or-die Wilderness showdown between all the troops, is a bit tedious, and all the fine acting in the world can't make that better. For the most part, however, the send-ups of Beverly Hills life—the sexed-up novelist mother, Phyllis' unabashed politically incorrect smoking, and Freddy's dating younger woman—are usually not present in goofy kid-oriented comedies, and that's a plus.
Overall, this is a decent movie for family, but nothing to go on about. It's really too bad Long didn't make smarter choices, because no dopey script can hide the fact that she truly is talented. Plus, it's a kick seeing actors in their '80s glory. Carla Gugino (Snake Eyes) is adorable as Wilderness girl Chica, and little Tori Spelling has an ironic bit part as one of Velda's minions, making fun of the Beverly Hills troop for being so snooty. Takes one to know one, 90210 girl!
The film is presented in a cropped 1.33:1 full frame version. Film-wise, I saw a few flecks, some grain, and also a bit of rough shadows in indoor scenes. This is an okay print, with crisp colors and smooth tones. It's a shame that the picture wasn't given a widescreen transfer, but what can you do? The soundtrack didn't fare much better, being a wan Dolby Digital 2.0 track in English and French. The '80s synthetic background music is muted, but the dialogue is nicely dispersed and the track is free of excessive distortion. And to be quite honest, it's okay that the synth music wasn't loud and clear, if you know what I mean. Also included on this disc are English and French subtitles.
Extras are quite weak, featuring only bonus trailers. I hate when they call it "bonus." Like, "It was so hard stuffing these two-minute blips onto your DVD, but we did it, because we felt like you deserved a bonus." I'm a trailer freak so it was kind of cool watching trailers to A League of Their Own, Little Secrets, and The Master of Disguise, though even brevity couldn't make the last film look even remotely good.
Poor Shelley Long. She will always be an outstanding actress, just one with a bad agent, perhaps? I hope we see a Shelley Long resurgence, brought on by her excellent comic timing as displayed in the Brady Bunch movies. Still, at least the movie provides a little more sarcasm than your typical family film, with some great '80s artifacts like big hair and white tights to keep the adults entertained.
Not worth a purchase, but if you're feeling nostalgic and/or have kids, go for a rental. Sentenced to a bad perm for crappy extras and sub-par technical specs!
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