In Praise of “Bad” Movies

One of the most ridiculous things to ever happen in the world of film criticism is the Roger and Ebert “thumbs up/thumbs down” approach to watching movies. That’s a good movie, or that’s a bad movie, is too quick an explanation for really engaging in films. (Ebert wasn’t fond of the practice, so I have heard, and he had a long standing difference with Pauline Kael, who by my account seemed to like tearing films apart much more than watching them. Ebert did really dive into articulated thoughts about films. Kael never seems to have been a film lover first, just a film snob who was contrary because it gained her attention.)

We all have them, even film critics. We have films we just love. There are movies which are great testaments to the art of visual storytelling. There are important visual stories that have becoming the building blocks the art form was based on. There are films of great merit. There are films that are schlock. And there are those countless films which critics tell us are worth a second look. This is one of mine. I sing in praise of a film that critics hated and audiences loved, and still love thanks to a long run on the Disney channel. Critics have poo-pooed the story, the acting, the pacing, and the premise. It’s Rotten Tomatoes rating is 8% (but its audience score there is 61%). Rita Kempley of the Washington Post said, “Dreadful as their performances are, the actors are the victims.” Another critic complained about uneven structure and “ostentatiously 80’s directorial choices.” (David Nusiar, Reel Film reviews.) The great Roger Ebert himself thought the premise and script praised materialistic yuppie ideals too much and that “nobody within a mile of this project seems to have possessed an ounce of irony.”  And yet, the film is so popular that selected Alamo Drafthouses are now doing quote-a-long screenings.

What is this “bad” movie? The delightful 1989 comedy Troop Beverly Hills.

Let me be honest, I have personal biases worth disclosing. I first saw this film when we rented it for my 10th birthday party sleepover. I laughed until I was out cold in a birthday and pizza party coma. The film at that time was a new VHS release, and in the same vein as dozens of 80s comedies my mom and eldest brother rented when we got pizza because my dad was away for the night (at the time my dad was a strictly meat and potatoes man). So it belongs in the same early category as other films of the time, like Big Business or Harry and the Hendersons. I loved it. As I recall, I insisted we keep the rental long enough to watch it again, and it was rented subsequent times. Ten-ish years later I and a group of my closest college buddies had movie night in my dorm room, and as we watched Troop Beverly Hills, a group of five or so of us realized we were all quoting it word for word. We caught each other’s eyes, mid-quote, and had moments of recognition. We were already friends, but this was true affirmation of our kindred-spiritness. My voicemail in college began with the film’s ridiculously pissy and militantly butch antagonist (Betty Thomas) saying, “My name is Velda Plendor. I’m a widow. I’m a mother. I’m an ex-army nurse. But first and foremost, I am a wilderness girl.” My friend Megan was probably the best person to trade quotes with, and she knew the film stone cold. Everything from Jasmine (Tasha Scott) telling her father, “Now daddy, shake the man’s hand and let’s be on our way” to the tormented scene where Phyllis Nefler (Shelly Long) the hero of the film, a Beverly Hills house wife who finds new meaning when she becomes the leader of her daughter Hannah (Jenny Lewis, pre Indie Rock fame)’s Wilderness Girl Troop Leader, finds herself alone in her room discouraged, with a trail of empty Evian bottles leading to her bed. When her friend, and romance novelist, Vicki (Stephanie Beacham) says, “Don’t you think you’ve had enough,” Phyllis replies, “Shut up and pass me the bottle.” Megan and I excelled at Velda Plendor quotes, though. But the point is, we and our friends Anne, Mary, and Laura could quote the entire film, from, the short-film-within-itself animated opening credits (made by an uncredited team of animators; two of whom worked on Ren and Stimpy), to the final shouts of “Beverly Hills, what a thrill!” And so much in between. “Ok so we’re not robust mountain women…as yet.” And, “You call this roughing it?” “Nine people for one bathroom? Yes.” Or my anbsolute favorite, “Dammit, dammit , dammit! Just once I would like to go the distance! …It really frosts my cookies that we have come so far and done so much, and now we have to stop!”

It goes beyond my personal experience, though. There’s a reason this film has remained so popular.  Being aired for years on the Disney channel certainly helped. The critics were just wrong. Some, like Ebert, had valid points, but the film doesn’t praise Beverly Hills in so much of a congratulatory way that it’s unrelatable. Instead, it is a clear case of a culture being able to laugh at itself. Beverly Hills is full of rich, out of touch people. One of them, Ava Ostern Fries, used her real life experiences as a Brownie Troop Leader for her daughter’s Beverly Hills Troop as basis for the story, getting back in touch by realizing how ridicuous the situations were.  According to a memoir by her husband Chuck, who served as executive producer, Ava dashed off her true stories (like a rained-out camping trip moving to a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel) and they were so good they commission a screenplay. If the film is self-congratulatory, it is so without being snobbish. In fact, that’s one of the points of the film. Mostly, it mocks the culture that goes to Christophé and Cartier with a light touch. It is in the same vein as the screwballs of the 30s that let viewers simultaneously mock the rich and live vicariously through them (see It Happened One Night, My Man Godfrey or any Ginger and Fred film).

And screwball it is. The complaint about pace is so odd I don’t even understand it, since the dialog pacing is absolutely sharp, and the sight gags spot on. Actor performance is just sublime. To the Rotten Tomatoes commenter that said, “She gave up Cheers for this?” I return, she has never shown brighter. Long absolutely sparkles in the part. You love her and believe her despite and perhaps because of her faults. Long is so comfortable in the role that when you go back to Cheers you have to adjust to Diane, who is well educated and seemingly deep but really quite shallow. Phyllis on the other hand, is seemingly shallow and materialistic, but really sincere, clever, and caring. Shelly Long could make the film,  but the cast around her is perfect (Betty Thomas, who has two prime time Emmys, is brilliant. Bril.Liant. I could quote her all day), making it an ensemble piece (with countless well used cameos) worthy of comparison to the great screwballs of the 30s. 

The script itself is of course predictable, but then any romantic comedy is really. The fun is in getting there, and Troop Beverly Hills is all fun, with no pretension to be anything but. When writing about the box-office flop but perennial favorite 1938 film Bringing Up Baby, critic David Thomson said, “…Hollywood is seldom more usefully serious than in its best comedies” (Have You Seen…? p128). This is one of the reasons we go to the movies. As the cartoon scene in  Sullivan’s Travels shows us, great comedy is profound in its impact. It can bring levity, encouragement, and joy. Good comedy is hard work that takes real skill and talent. Films by eternally adolescent boys that get critical praise by immature film critics who want to make the right friends in Hollywood may be called “good,” but I think Garry Marshall was a genius. Why else would other directors (like Troop‘s Jeff Kanew) mimic his style? His comedies had timing and character and heart. Much of the comedy was earned character moments, not an inserted flatulent joke or a cheap skin sight gag.

These “bad”films, like perhaps the ones directed by Paul Feig (I’m going to see Ghostbusters tomorrow) need reconsideration. Good and bad are too loose in their terminology. It’s more complicated than that. What are you looking for in a film? The real quality ones may sacrifice daring cinematography for an emphasis on actor performance (this is the case with most musicals), but they will be made with some kind of artistic integrity. That is somewhat subjective, true, but the debates about whether a film has artistic merit make us examine them closer. For me, it starts with the films we truly love. Why do we love them? How do they affirm us? Where is their beauty? Some comedy is cheap, demeaning, and stupid, that’s true. But comedy at its best although it looks simple and light-hearted, seemingly unimportant, allows us to play, to laugh at ourselves, and to enjoy. The comedies of the thirties were a necessary emotional leaven to the Great Depression. We need challenging stories, but when our realities are brutal, and this summer has been one brutal news story after another, we need to laugh again. Comics have a noble job. Ridiculous 80s farces about girls earning merit patches at a beauty salon do too. We think we are so intelligent, so in control, so important. We’re not, really. That’s what makes comedy both essential and “good.”


About jenletherer

BA, Theater and Speech Communication; English:Creative Writing. Siena Heights University, 2002. MFA, Film Production. Boston University, 2005
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