What is a dumb movie? Is it one that makes no sense, one that rolls your eyes and shatters your sense of disbelief? Is it bad, uninspired, maybe even unwatchable? Is it regarded with contempt and tossed to the side, destined to be forgotten except maybe in a vague memory?
Encino Man graced our screens 30 years ago. The high school comedy romp starred Sean Astin, Pauly Shore and a very early career Brendan Fraser. The premise is perfectly dumb: Two social outcasts thaw a caveman, hoping he can be used to make them popular while they teach him the ins and outs of being a modern teen.
Encino Man is about as early ‘90s as a movie could possibly be. It’s a time capsule filled with every social group that spread across America: The stoners, the casual SoCal lifestyle, the early aesthetics of grunge. The valley culture boom of the 1980s is still present, but very clearly evolving into a new sensation moving away from “valley speak” and toward a new vocabulary of surfer and stoner slang. But after three decades, I’m battling Encino Man’s classification as a movie to be tossed aside. The film did not survive well critically and while it gradually became a cult favorite, no one is going up to bat for the goofy caveman movie. Until today. It’s been long enough: Can we finally appreciate its glorious stupidity?
The element of Encino Man that has aged the best is Brendan Fraser. The film was only Fraser’s second feature and he burst on the scene as Link, the titular Encino Man. He throws himself into every scene. Whether he’s hunting a fly, learning how to speak like Pauly Shore or performing one of the best dance scenes in history, it’s a joyous performance. Fraser is magnetic and instantly watchable.
It’s no wonder Encino Man kickstarted Fraser’s career; it essentially works as his audition tape for George of the Jungle. Fraser plays the goofy and dumb hunk with ease and it’s clear on rewatches why he became a star. “Caveman” is one of those characters that can easily become a caricature, but Fraser gives Link a personality beyond just the gimmick. He inhabits the physicality of the role, making the transition from fish-out-of-water to SoCal native look natural. Fraser has such strong comedic timing that he makes the rest of the cast have to adapt to his performance. He has one of those rare screen presences that prove that you can always become a better actor, but charisma is an inherent trait. But since the performance is so goofy, Fraser is vastly underestimated. That’s a disservice associated with the film. He’s certainly become a better actor over the decades, but there’s a lot of raw talent on display. I don’t think any other actor could’ve inhabited the role with that perfect mix of physical comedy and pure starry charm. It’s an evergreen performance, still one of Fraser’s best, and it elevates Encino Man beyond its silly concept. Encino Man would not have been the romp it is without the capable and perennially underestimated Fraser and rewatching the film shows how far he’s come.
Without Encino Man we would not have had Fraser as the go-to action-comedy star of the 1990s and early 2000s. And after years away from the mainstream, his current career resurgence (the Brenaissance) is even more special when looking back at one of his earliest films. Fraser is now taking on roles he has never approached: He played an intimidating villain in Showtime’s The Affair; he’s worked or working with Steven Soderbergh, Danny Boyle, Martin Scorsese and Darren Aronofsky. After a career that saw him relegated to variations of his same early success, Fraser is finally getting a career that respects him as an actor.
But I’m not just here to praise Fraser. If someone doesn’t like Encino Man, they’ll likely point toward one main culprit by the name of Pauly Shore. If Encino Man is a time capsule, Shore’s performance as Stoney Brown is the piece of archaic technology someone has to explain to you. It’s so overwhelmingly ‘90s it comes off as parody. Shore’s stoner speak practically needs a pocket translator to be understood.
The Shore criticism is understandable. While at first it’s perfectly fine in its silliness, there is a point—about halfway through the film—where it starts to feel like nails on a chalkboard. But I don’t think this is Shore’s fault. His “The Weasel” character and parody of the surfer lifestyle blended the line between comedian and character. He was an early ‘90s sensation, but the film tries to elevate him too much. It sets him up to fail. Encino Man focuses far too much on Shore’s specific comedy, targeted specifically at the VJ generation, to whom he offers an of-the-moment style made up of intense wordplay and a commitment to character. And critics were not kind. His performance in Encino Man earned him a Razzie Award for Worst Newcomer and, now that it seems we as a society have finally come to our senses on the Razzies being one of the most uninspired fixtures of movie evaluation, I think they owe a few more apologies. Why stop at Shelley Duvall and Bruce Willis?
Whether you find Shore’s comedy funny is, like all things, subjective. At first I found his ease of delivery amid tongue-twisting sentences impressive. Not many actors could say “don’t tax my gig so hardcore, cruster” at all, let alone without sounding like a poser. Shore’s natural confidence and knowledge of his schtick are his greatest assets. But there comes a point where Stoney’s scenes stop the movie in its tracks so that Shore can deliver sections from his stand-up routines. His performance isn’t bad, director Les Mayfield just doesn’t feature him in a way that highlights his strengths. His character works best when he’s an actual character in Encino Man, not just Pauly Shore doing bits. When Shore gets to teach Fraser about how to eat Slurpees and dress well, there’s an actual bond between the characters. If I wanted to just listen to Shore talk without end in the ‘90s, I would just watch MTV.
So yes, Encino Man is dumb. I don’t think anyone would argue against that. But it’s also special in its dumbness. Teens gotta learn how to drive, so what if a caveman got behind the wheels and skidded through the streets of Encino on two wheels? How would a man from ages past react to videogames, slushie machines and high school classes? These are the questions perfect for the medium of film to answer. The film manages to make every aspect of mundane high school life seem fun through the eyes of a caveman. Driver’s Ed becomes a life or death adventure, Spanish class becomes actually interesting when a caveman has to learn how to use headphones. But one of the most striking scenes is when the gang goes on a field trip to a museum and Link understands that everyone he ever knew is long dead. There is a surprising amount of emotion brought to an otherwise boring excursion. But Encino Man doesn’t want to get bogged down by that for long, not when prom is around the corner!
It’s here where it’s most clear that Encino Man takes the “why not?” approach to filmmaking. The entire film is leading up to the climactic moment at prom where the school bully reveals that Link is actually a caveman to stop him from being popular and getting the girl. And how do all these teenagers react? They think it’s fucking cool and love him even more! Then the whole cast performs a choreographed dance to “Feed the Monkey!” Then they all go to a party and (surprise!) Link’s hot girlfriend from the ice age is there now. She looks like a ‘90s beach babe and they have sex in a bathtub!
Encino Man is not complicated. We have an urge now to celebrate films criticized in the past as “misunderstood” and argue for their quality. The problem with Encino Man is not that it’s actually a high quality film, it’s that people thought being dumb meant that it wasn’t in on the joke. But it’s a dumb movie in the best ways. It has strong performances and all the stupid things that make movies great (all high school bully vs. nerd kid fights should take place on an ice rink for no reason). You can criticize its pacing or its plot, but that wouldn’t be fair to the type of movie Encino Man is trying to be. You don’t have Link drink a bowl of salsa, go briefly insane while banging a drum in a conga line, then recite the two sentences he knows in Spanish to a threatening macho guy (which causes the guy to break up with his girlfriend and cry into his bro’s shoulder), without being a bit self-aware.
Teenagers certainly deserve smart movies with heavy themes and serious subject matter. But sometimes you’re just goofing off with your friends and you want to see Brendan Fraser flopping his body around a high school gymnasium. Encino Man is very much a product of the ‘90s, but that’s what makes it so fun to rewatch as the years go by. Aesthetics change and the way we talk about movies has changed. Maybe now, as the ‘90s become vintage and Brendan Fraser reenters the mainstream, we can finally appreciate Encino Man for the movie it was always trying to be. Encino Man pulled off an impressive feat: Being good at being dumb.
Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila