A few months back I picked up a copy of Ernest Goes to Camp and reviewed it here, as one of the many movies of the 1980s that I couldn’t quite remember seeing. That movie came on a cheap DVD three-pack, which meant that there were a couple other Ernest P. Worrell films to get to eventually. Looking at the films, I decided to space them out about three months apart — the third is a Halloween film so it should be seen in October — and so it has now come time to watch and review 1990’s Ernest Goes to Jail. Although it’s the second Ernest film I’ve seen, it’s technically the third in the series — the second being Ernest Saves Christmas — but I figured that the Ernest series was unlikely to have an in-depth continuity that needed to be followed.
There do, however, seem to be some constants in the Ernest films. Besides Jim Varney as the title character, the films all seem to be directed by John R. Cherry III, and at least in the first few films, Gailard Sartain plays a bumbling friend of Ernest with an interest in inventions. In this case, however, he’s a different character than in “Camp”, playing Chuck, one of two security guards at the bank. The other, Bobby, is played by Bill Byrge, who never speaks a word but mugs for the camera even more than Varney himself does.
Unlike Varney, this is not the face of a man who studied Shakespeare.
The Ernest films appear to have been the only roles to Byrge’s name, always playing the character of Bobby. It’s not a particularly complicated character, and I suspect in large doses he’d eventually get annoying, or just boring. But he isn’t overused in “Jail”, his cartoonish antics add to the humorous appeal of the film.
The plot is different from “Camp”, but has some similar elements. Ernest is still a janitor, and is still hoping for a more prominent (yet still relatively minor) position at his establishment — in this case, the local bank, where he hopes to become a teller. He still irritates his boss, here bank manager Oscar Pendlesmythe (Dan Leegant), and again has a female friend among his fellow employees who supports him, here bank teller Charlotte (Barbara Tyson, who at the time was going by Barbara Bush, which leads to a moment of confusion when watching the opening credits.)
Ernest’s ambitions in this case get derailed by getting summoned to jury duty, which he is ecstatic about. But it winds up getting him in trouble, as the felon whose trial he’s sitting on and his crooked lawyer note that Ernest is a dead-ringer for Felix Nash, one of the ringleaders of the criminals in prison, who is looking to get out. They contrive to get Ernest switched for Felix, and soon Felix is trying to break into the bank while Ernest is coping with life in prison. (Side note: It bugs me when people confuse jail and prison. Would there have been anything wrong with calling this Ernest Goes to Prison, since that’s what actually happens?)
Possibly the only prison where the guards’ uniforms are more humiliating than the convicts’.
Ernest gets bullied and pushed around by other convicts, most particularly Felix’s henchmen, played by Barry Scott and Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb. These two character actors do a good job of portraying a couple of cruel and petty felons, but the best role in the prison is the warden, played by Charles Napier. He seems to actively take delight in inflicting punishment on the uppity Ernest, who keeps persisting in trying to improve his situation once it finally dawns on him that he’s actually in prison. Varney, of course, gets most of the screen time, and playing two different characters gives him the opportunity to stretch his acting abilities a little. Not a lot — even if Felix Nash is a murderous criminal, he’s still in an Ernest movie so it’s not like he’s ever going to be as frightening as such a character could theoretically be — but it is enough to show that Varney does have more ability than just playing Ernest P. Worrell all the time. He’s not going to go breaking my rule of thumb that only Peter Sellers should attempt multiple characters at once, but he does a better job than many comedic actors, with a different tone of voice, different vocal inflections, and a different posture and gait when he’s playing Felix instead of Ernest (and, I should stress, these are all natural-feeling behaviors, not exaggerated). Even without the slicked-back hair that Felix wears, or Ernest’s ever-present ball cap, I don’t think there would be any risk of the audience being confused as to which character was on screen even when they’re not speaking.
Of course, this raises the question of how the other characters are fooled. The answer is, “they’re morons.”
The plot for the film is actually pretty solid. It’s not particularly deep — this is still an Ernest film — but it isn’t really any thinner than, say, your typical action movie. Most of the characters are pretty one-note, and there isn’t a lot of character development for anybody, not even Ernest. That’s not really too bad in a low-brow comedy, though; it’s all in what you expect. The jokes are mostly pretty good, but there are occasional weaknesses. One particular running gag, with Ernest getting electrified and then inexplicably becoming magnetic, starts to wear thin well before the time it becomes plot critical. It goes just a bit too far in the climax, where it simply becomes too unbelievable to be funny at that point. I realize criticizing an Ernest P. Worrell film for its believability is a bit like criticizing the table-side service at McDonald’s, but it did get just a bit too far-fetched at the end. Given the better build-up to the gags in the climax of Ernest Goes to Camp, it’s hard not to be just a little disappointed.
Still, even though Ernest Goes to Jail isn’t as good of a movie, it’s still reasonably entertaining. I don’t think anybody who wasn’t a fan of Ernest Goes to Camp would enjoy it, but those who are will at least find it passably enjoyable.