Looking Back: Encino Man (1992)

Here’s an odd and fairly useless piece of movie trivia I’ve been lugging around for 25 years: Regis Philbin and Kathy Lee Gifford turned down the chance to play the parents in “Encino Man.” Please, don’t hold in your collective ooh and aahs as you read this! During one of their morning show banter-fests, Philbin and Gifford recalled how they passed on appearing in the Hollywood Pictures/Disney comedy and, as Philbin exclaimed, “we could have saved that movie!”

Giving “Encino Man” a look today, it’s not as bad as Philbin believes. It’s also not the Caveman variation on “Teen Wolf” that everyone involved obviously intended it to be.

Sean Astin and MTV personality turned unlikely 90’s movie star Pauley Shore play a couple of high school losers who unearth a cavemen in California. Although nothing remotely scientific or magical occurs, “Link” (played by an awfully game Brendan Fraser) randomly springs to life after being underground and encased in a block of ice for centuries. After a few moments of encountering a garbage truck, a dog and a garden tool, Link quickly adapts to his modern day setting and helps our heroes score the local “betty” (played by the lovely Kristy Swanson look-alike Megan Ward).

Here’s the thing about comedies tailor-made for teenagers. In order for them to work, they have to be smarter than their gimmicky plot synopsis. For example, “Wayne’s World,” “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” are all pretty silly but they’re not dumb and have nuggets of satire and wit in their comic arsenal. On the other hand, “Encino Man” is stupid and proud of it, which is a shame.

Call me crazy, but there could have been something here. Link isn’t discovered by a kindly scientist like Timothy Hutton in “Iceman” nor a sweet, sympathetic little boy like Henry Thomas in “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.” No, Link is literally thawed out by a horny dope and his much, much dopier best friend. Link learns about how to be “normal” from Stoney, who Shore plays like the class clown who is too stoned to realize class has ended and his buds are no longer sitting next to him. There could have been some satire or potential social commentary on the way Link, a noble and resourceful caveman, is made into a modern day party moron through Stoney’s teaching. If “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” made the entire film about the time Napoleon Bonaparte became a mall rat by hanging out with a group of 80’s teens, it might have looked like this movie. Yet, rather than properly note that Stoney’s manner is also a put on and that Link is being groomed by idiots who should have turned him over to someone with a mid-range IQ, “Encino Man” celebrates Link’s de-evolved journey to becoming a subpar Spicoli.

I don’t know why “Son in Law” is the most durable and funniest of Shore’s movies but it’s still the best vehicle he ever had. While “Encino Man” was a hit and certainly launched Shore into the movie mainstream, a little of him goes a long way. At first, he’s endearingly goofy and a fun contrast to Astin’s mopey, lovesick lead. After a while, his incessant “Weez”-isms and mangling of every sentence becomes grating. In small doses, Shore is a suitable sidekick but too much of “Encino Man” puts him front and center. Astin (who was a year away from his “Rudy” comeback and a decade away from his Hobbit reign) only has one note to play but he’s still a better actor than Shore. So is Michael DeLuise, who’s very funny as the jealous jock boyfriend. Robin Tunney co-stars in a fairly degrading role and Rose McGowen has a few lines here and there but, The Weez aside, this is Fraser’s movie. Looking at this, “George of the Jungle,” “Dudley Do Right,” “Bedazzled,” “Monkeybone,” and “Furry Vengeance,” I’m touched by how this talented actor would appear many, many times in movies where he effortlessly played a total doofus. Some of the disgusting things Fraser does in this movie are understandable- after all, he was a newcomer playing the title role in a major motion picture. Yet, even after he became a household name, Fraser still gave good idiot when the role required it. I like that about him. Perhaps against my better judgment, I really enjoy his performance as Link.

For a while, “Encino Man” is pleasant and funny enough. A let’s-give-Link-a-makeover montage set to Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” is probably as good as this gets (the hilarious, gag-inducing reveal of the filth left over in the tub gets me every time). After a while, it becomes too sexist, racist and 90’s “extreme” to endure. The big prom climax is very-rushed and disheartening. Having Ward end up with Astin doesn’t feel right and neither does the way Link is matched in the last scene. The closing moments suggest Link will adjust to life as a caveman party animal, which also seems like a cheat. At the end of “Teen Wolf,” both one and “Too,” the hairy protagonists discover that being The Wolf is an act and that embracing who you truly are is the real accomplishment. “Encino Man” doesn’t care about Link or who he was before he was frozen. This movie wants him to, in the words of The Weez, keep scoring nugs and grabbing gazungas.

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