B.C. FOLLIES

"That Fred Flintstone--what an actor!" enthuses a morgue attendant in the Ron Howard comedy Night Shift. I've never particularly agreed. Although I dutifully watched, as a kid, Hanna-Barbera's endlessly rerun cartoon series, which turned humankind's prehistoric past into a 50s-style, suburban tract-house wonderland, I found it unsophisticated even then--my cartoon loyalties were always to the Looney Toons and Bullwinkle.

Yet there was some dopey part of my moviegoing soul that was looking forward to Universal's big-budget, live-action movie version of The Flintstones. Probably this was because I had nothing to lose watching the film, no cherished memories to sully. Last year I sat through Penelope Spheeris' feature version of The Beverly Hillbillies, appalled less because it was a rotten movie than because it was a rotten movie of a funny, maligned, underrated TV show. However bad The Flintstones might be, it wouldn't be a desecration.

Besides, the trailers made it look like it might be gaudy, cheerful, well-made kitsch, and that's what it is. It's fun, as long as you can overcome that part of yourself which whispers, gee, this is a lot of money and talent and craft to have expended on the frigging Flintstones. To call The Flintstones a guilty pleasure is to avow more than that it's a stupid film which is enjoyable. It's also an avowal of the faint shame of participating in this sort of pop-culture enshrinement.

The critics must be feeling this pang--most of them seem to be clubbing The Flintstones. But I think it turned out surprisingly well, all things considered. The filmmakers have taken the same basic gag mechanism that the TV show hinged on, which was finding prehistoric equivalents for modern conveniences--mammoth trunks as shower heads, dinosaurs as heavy equipment, bird beaks as phonograph needles, piglike creatures as garbage disposals--and employed it simply enough to be accessible to kids, yet not so crudely as to be insulting to the adults that brought them. The closest the humor gets to daring is a Stone Age newspaper headline reading "Mideast Peace Talks Break Down Again"--not exactly brilliant wit, but a lot closer than the TV show ever got.

The director is young Brian Levant, who directed the excruciating kiddy movie Beethoven. He works from one elaborate tchotchke to the next at a peppy pace. The plot, true to the show (and to its origins as a Honeymooners imitation), concerns Fred's attempt to rise above his blue-collar station, this time by becoming a vice president at the rock quarry where he and his best pal Barney Rubble (Rick Moranis) work. What Fred doesn't know is that a) he got his high grade in the aptitude exam because Barney swapped tests with him (in gratitude for Fred's loan to Barney of Bamm-Bamm's adoption fee), and b) that he's being set up as a patsy by a couple of embezzlers.

Playing iconically familiar cartoon characters isn't the most liberating fate that can befall an actor (although I'd guess it's pretty liberating financially). This is probably why Kyle MacLachlan and Halle Berry, who play the scheming white-collar villains, come across particularly well--they didn't have to conform to a pre-existing image. The strain of this seems to have gotten to lovely Elizabeth Perkins; as Fred's no-nonsense wife, Wilma, she seems rather wan and unsure of herself.

The other players comport themselves skillfully, however. Rosie O'Donnell, as Betty Rubble, leans on a single gag--her prim, behind-the-teeth giggle--and she gets a laugh every time she uses it. Moranis is an acceptable Barney, and there are good bits by Jonathan Winters, Dann Florek, Richard Moll and Harvey Korman's voice. Elizabeth Taylor's much-publicized appearance (as Fred's mother-in-law) is, pleasingly, not just a gag cameo; it's a real role, which she brings off like a pro.

The real pro, however, is John Goodman, who plays Fred. Because he's appeared so often, and so likably, in dull stuff like King Ralph and Born Yesterday, the fact that Goodman's a consummately fine actor, as good as they come in Hollywood, may be neglected at times. I hope The Flintstones makes him rich, because without the touch of three-dimensional humanity which Goodman smuggles into his performance, all the film's impeccable special effects and funny set designs would be for naught. That John Goodman--what an actor.

 
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