What is it with this cinematic obsession with high school popularity? Why does it matter so much to the outcasts in movies what “the cool kids” think of them? What is it they feel they’re missing out on by not being accepted by the temporary elite?
In Encino Man, Sean Astin plays a self-centered high school senior who is absolutely convinced that being invisible is the worst possible feeling in the world. (It isn’t. Trust me.) As his final year wraps up, he vows to have some kind of breakthrough, one that will allow him to leave some kind of legendary legacy behind, whatever that entails. His only friend is the deeply annoying Pauly Shore, a hipster doofus with a scooter who dresses twenty years out of style and talks like a punch drunk valley dude who sometimes pauses before finishing a one-syllable word.
Astin is obsessed with Megan Ward, a fellow student he’s known his entire life but never cared about until her recent acceptance into “babehood”. His transparent shallowness might be the reason he doesn’t stand a chance with her. Then again, she is dating Michael DeLuise, a hockey goon with a Vanilla Ice haircut who delights in bullying him. (He’s easily threatened by other potential suitors.) At one point, he literally staples Astin to a school bulletin board, writes “loser” on his forehead, then pulls the fire alarm so the student body can get a cheap laugh.
Astin’s luck changes when he stumbles upon an amazing discovery in his family’s backyard. While continuing to shovel out dirt for the purpose of installing a new swimming pool, he unearths a frozen caveman (Brendan Fraser). In the real world, he’d be dead but because this is a teen fantasy, Fraser’s still very much alive. In fact, he hasn’t aged a day from the moment an avalanche separated him from his lady love many moons ago. Once he’s free from his glacial prison (how did he stay frozen in that California climate?), like a true fish out of water, he has a hard time adapting to his new surroundings. Practically everything in the modern world freaks him out (with the notable exception of dance music).
Astin doesn’t care. He finally has a plan to become popular. By enrolling Fraser in his high school as a foreign exchange student from Estonia, Astin figures by being “friends” with the eccentric primitive (in other words, by constantly hanging around him in public) he can become popular by association as long as the student body warms to Fraser. (Like Teen Wolf, another laughless comedy, the cleaned-up caveman makes friends very easily.) Shore isn’t completely convinced this is a good idea (he actually likes hanging with the caveman and unlike Astin, is comfortable being himself) but begrudgingly he goes along with his desperate plan anyway.
Watching this movie it’s easy to understand why Astin is such a social outcast. He’s a total knob. He has no charm, no grace, no wit and no core values other than this sad need to be admired by a whole bunch of strangers he’s probably never going to see again following the prom and graduation. (Will he still care what they think of him at the inevitable reunion?) Not once does he mention his grades nor his future ambitions beyond wanting to be popular in college. He’s literally a walking empty shell hoping to be filled with the emptiness of temporary celebrity. It never occurs to him that maybe being a good, honest person with a happy disposition might be a better idea, particularly in the long run. He just doesn’t think like a reasonable human being. No one does in this pathetic excuse for a movie.
Meanwhile, Astin’s dream of taking Ward to the prom is looking bleaker by the second. Despite breaking up with DeLuise and suddenly warming up to him (before, she merely tolerated him), she finds herself far more interested in Fraser who isn’t a self-conscious party pooper. (During a bar scene when Ward asks Astin to dance, he actually turns her down by making a lame excuse. Fraser, on the other hand, is happy to fill in.) Even when she offers to take both Astin and Fraser to the prom (after the former whines about being passed over by the latter), he hangs up on her. And this guy wants to be popular?
Not to be outdone, DeLuise learns the truth about Fraser which he hopes to share with his fellow graduates at the prom so he can become King instead of the cave dweller. What are the chances they’ll give a rat’s ass? And who gives a shit about being Prom King, anyway?
I first screened Encino Man at a local multiplex twenty years ago with a small group of friends not too long after I was elected the Student Council President of my own high school. (Unfortunately, because we were a little late we missed part of the opening which always bothered me. (Yes, I’m anal.) Also, I’ve never been completely satisfied with my original assessment. (I originally thought it was hit and miss.) I don’t remember if I ever screened the movie again at that point in time hence this long overdue rescreening.)
It was a pretty exciting time in my life. I had convinced a large group of my peers, most of whom I didn’t know very well, to vote me into the highest position of power a student can attain. I had reached the highest level of popularity at my school, members of the football team notwithstanding.
However, instead of spending the summer preparing for the busiest year of my academic life, I lost myself at the movies. By the time my final year of high school began, I was so unprepared for what was to come, the wave of reality hit me like an unstoppable locomotive. It was a depressing period filled with deep uncertainty and, over time, severe regret. (Check out Memories Of A Really Bad Student Council President Parts One through Eight on this website for the whole story.)
I can’t help but reflect on that awful period while thinking about Sean Astin’s character in Encino Man. He is so misguided and delusional about his lot in life, much like myself twenty years ago. Instead of building up his character and trying to win over people with good old-fashioned honest persuasion, he resorts to this extremely sad caveman scheme. And for what? To be remembered for a few fleeting moments and to win the affections of a girl who truly isn’t worth all the effort?
If I’m remembered at all by the student body of my high school, I hope the memories are positive and not at all about the Student Council debacle which I’m not proud of, for the most part. But chances are, some will remember my painful, public failure in a way I wish they wouldn’t. Thankfully, I’ve long made piece with that horrendous year of my life and have moved on.
Sean Astin’s character in Encino Man might get what he believes his heart truly desires in the end (which will be a complete surprise to absolutely no one) but in a more thoughtful inspired comedy with actual laughs (instead of 88 minutes of total silence this god awful disaster invokes), he would actually reach an unthinkable conclusion:
High school fame is the emptiest fame of all.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, April 8, 2012