Film Reviews

Beav Jerky

Time has a way of slipping away. But don't worry--studio executives are keeping a typically keen eye on the calendar, and calculating the simple economics of boomer nostalgia. Hmmm . . . 1997 minus 1957 equals 40 years. Forty years of nostalgia times a gazillion boomers plus all the baffled kids they can drag along to the multiplex multiplied by the cost of a movie ticket equals enough bucks to justify a relatively inexpensive big-screen version of . . . Leave It to Beaver!

Yes, four full decades have passed since America first heard the words ". . . and Jerry Mathers as the Beaver." What's ironic is that, at the height of the show's considerable popularity, a production boss who suggested a Leave It to Beaver feature film would have been given mental care. But now, in the wake of The Addams Family, The Brady Bunch Movie and The Beverly Hillbillies, the idea of making and marketing a puffed-up episode of a series that is no more than a foggy memory to most people approaches a financial imperative. In fact, next on the TV-to-film turnstyle is Gilligan's Island--no kidding. What's next? Maude: The Next Generation?

The original Leave It to Beaver, whatever its virtues, was hardly one of the Golden Age's more inspired concepts. Essentially, it was a clone of Father Knows Best--which predated Beaver by three years--with the addition of, and emphasis on, hapless young Theodore. In retrospect, this change and the added character of Eddie Haskell were improvements: Father Knows Best technically may have been a sitcom, but I can't for the life of me remember anything funny about it.

Beaver was only slightly less bland, a fact that has created a certain set of problems for the filmmakers. Screen adaptors of ancient TV shows all have to confront the issue of--indulge me here--temporal dissonance. The world has evolved, the nuclear family has mutated and, possibly more significant, so have our notions of what is acceptable in "family" entertainment. While the latter shift didn't start with Matt Groening, The Simpsons surely dealt the death blow to the cornball suburban sitcom--one in which divorce, poverty and child abuse don't exist and a bad report card represents the ultimate in angst.

In a few cases, the transfer is a boon. The original Addams Family TV show, funny as it was, was always hampered by TV restrictions. The passage of three decades enabled the basic material to reach a fuller realization of its potential on the big screen, where director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black) turned the twists into kinks. But Beaver, like most of the tepid sitcoms being remade as films, has little or no greater potential to realize; it never could have aspired to more than its TV incarnation. One solution might have been to exploit the absurdity of the anachronisms and cultural cliches, as in The Brady Bunch Movie: Drop the Cleavers in the middle of South Central and call it Leave It to Eldridge. Or to mutate the original premise beyond recognition, as with Sgt. Bilko.

Director Andy Cadiff (from TV's Home Improvement) and screenwriters Brian Levant (who directed The New Leave It to Beaver series in the '80s) and Lon Diamond have chosen to impose minimal updating on Beaver. The cars are current models, Beaver (Cameron Finley) gets a computer for his birthday, and Wally (Erik von Detten) kisses his new girlfriend with a passion never seen between June and Ward, let alone a couple of junior-high students, on '50s TV. But in nearly all other regards, the world of Mayfield seems trapped in a time lock.

The plot is barely more complex than a single half-hour episode of the show: Beaver wants a new bike, so he kisses up to Ward (Christopher McDonald) by ambitiously going out for football; the bike gets stolen, and Beaver draws Wally into an escalating series of lies. Wally gets involved with the girl (Erika Christensen) that Eddie (Adam Zolotin) has a crush on. Nothing that could vaguely be called a complication ensues.

The opening-credit sequence is hardly a good omen: A series of already lame gags is staged with horrible, flat timing. Shortly thereafter, things pick up slightly. McDonald does an extraordinary replication of Hugh Beaumont's speech patterns and mannerisms, but, unfortunately, his character has been the most altered. On TV, Ward's single flaw was his hard line--hard compared with June, in any case--on responsibility and discipline; the two parents were, dare we say it, the animus and anima, struggling over their children's essence. On film, Ward has become a far less likable character; he is constantly trying to live through Wally and the Beav, pushing them to fulfill his own frustrated ambitions. He really seems like a crummy dad.

The rest of the cast is adequate, though Janine Turner gets to do virtually nothing as June. (Barbara Billingsley, the original June, turns up briefly as Aunt Martha; and Ken Osmond, our old pal Eddie Haskell, plays the new Eddie's dad.) There are occasional funny gags, including one very amusing, truly dirty joke that slips by too fast for underage ears to comprehend. (No, it doesn't involve the word "beaver.")

The disappointing thing is that, despite the TV show's considerable limitations, more could have been done here. Way back in 1983, CBS aired Still the Beaver, certainly one of the best TV reunion shows ever made. Director Steven Hilliard Stern and his writers didn't merely drag Beaver into the (then) contemporary world; they dragged Beaver himself into adulthood. Jerry Mathers portrayed the now-35ish Beav as he might really have grown up. On the verge of divorce, alienated from his kids, out of work, Beaver has to go back to living with Mom: The cute blundering and dimness no longer seem so cute.

In its modest way, the TV movie was genuinely poignant and moving, in a way the big-screen version doesn't even attempt: Theodore was indeed "still the Beaver." And there just wasn't much funny about that anymore.

Leave It to Beaver
Directed by Andy Cadiff; with Cameron Finley, Christopher McDonald and Janine Turner.