Ernest Goes to Jail (1990)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Son of Godzilla

Legacy of Rage


Ernest Goes to Jail

Lava LampLava Lamp

Our rating: two LAVA® motion lamps.

Ernest Goes to Jail
His mother always said his face
would stick like that.
We couldn't let the passing of Jim Varney, better known as Ernest P. Worrell, go without acknowledgement. We'll let the other websites make jokes about his new film, Ernest Goes to the Morgue. We prefer to take the (ahem) high road by reviewing Ernest Goes to Jail, widely regarded as the Best Ernest Film Ever.

To begin, we'd like to say this is the worst sequel to an Oscar Wilde play we've ever seen. What does any of this have to do with The Importance of Being Earnest?

Jim Varney plays his famous yokel character as the janitor of "the bank." What bank? A bank, the bank, some bank. It doesn't matter, because it's the only bank in the film. Unable to fulfill even the meager duties of this particular position, it looks as though Ernest will never acquire the vaunted bank clerk job he wants, nor will he gain the affections of Charlotte (Barbara Tyson, credited here as Barbara Bush), the perky bank clerk who wants to help Ernest gain some self-esteem.

Ernest Goes to Jail
The evil Ernest. Ok,
the more evil Ernest.
There are some forgettable slapstick antics early in the film, but the plot doesn't get rolling until Ernest is summoned to jury duty. The defendant, who allegedly killed another man in jail, recognizes Ernest to be a dead ringer for Felix Nash, the meanest guy in the joint. Through his lawyers, the convict arranges for the jury to visit the prison, during which Nash makes the switch with Ernest. Ernest, mistaking his new lodgings for a sequestering of the jury, spends some time enjoying the food before realizing that he's in jail.

That's right: if the film's title didn't spoil it for you, you now find out that the lovable Ernest has been thrown in jail -- the hoosegow, the clink, the calaboose, the stir, the lockup, the cooler, the jug, ths slammer, the pokey. Which, if you think about all the times Ernest has committed the crime of breaking and entering into Vern's house, is probably where he belonged in the first place. Nash's cronies, eager to keep the escape a secret, encourage Ernest to play along by making threats against Charlotte.

Ernest Goes to Jail
Florida's new method of
capital punishment.
Nash, meanwhile, has assumed Ernest's place in life, even going so far as to woo Charlotte and redecorate Ernest's house in 70's lounge lizard style. (When Ernest sees the new decor, he is moved to scream: "I've been vandalized! By Elvis!" During the screening, we clung dearly to funny lines such as this one.) He is also using Ernest's job to prepare for a quick robbery of the bank before moving on to a new life of crime. Ernest, you see, is now serving Nash's sentence on Death Row, will be electrocuted long before he can reveal the switch to anyone. And speaking of switches, we're going to let slip a little spoiler that will definitely make Ernest fans want to watch the movie, while simultaneously inspiring those who hate Ernest to run out and rent it, too: Ernest gets put in the chair, and they actually throw the switch.

Coincidentally, this scene contains one of the most drippingly ironic moments in the film. Moments before his execution, Ernest is approached by a guard.

Guard: Would you like a cigarette or a blindfold or something?

Ernest: No, I'm afraid of the dark, and cigarettes will kill you.

Varney, of course, died of lung cancer, which was brought on by years of cigarette smoking. The extra irony is heaped on when one watches The Ernest Film Festival (more on this later), which includes an anti-smoking spot in which Ernest implores Vern to quit his cigarette habit.

But let us not dwell on the more somber aspects of Varney's life. Ernest was all about clowning around and doing the right thing, even if you are a dumb yokel. Ernest Goes to Jail is a somewhat tiresome extension of that persona, but it does give us a chance to see Varney flex his acting muscles with a few fun impressions and his role as the rather gritty Nash. Plus, the film's nature allowed us to see yet more physical abuse of Ernest, and an ending quote you have to respect.

"I came, I saw, I got blowed up."

Ernest Goes to Jail
Is Ernest some sort of caterer for
building contractors or something?
And now for our extra-special bonus Ernest review:

If you know of a video store that has sufficient contempt for its customers, you may find (Hey Vern, It's) The Ernest Film Festival, presented by KnoWhutImean Home Video. (We could not make this stuff up.) Apparently released at the height of Ernest mania, The Ernest Film Festival is composed of nothing but Ernest commercials. Ernest selling Sprite, Mello Yello, and Tab, Ernest selling dairy products, Ernest shilling for car dealerships, Ernest pushing gas heaters, Ernest selling more dairy products, Ernest promoting grocery stores, and Ernest doing spots for the United Way. For forty-five minutes. It may well have been the longest forty-five minutes of our lives. Did we mention the dairy products? Guess what? He says "knowhutimean" a whole lot during this tape. After the commercials we see outtakes, which were pretty amusing until we realized that some of the outtakes were from commercials we hadn't seen... and that means that there were even more Ernest commercials... Nooooooooooooooo!

After a few minutes of watching these commercials, we began to ponder the second most important character featured in them: Vern. We never see Vern (okay maybe Vern's hand, but does that count?) and, other than some occasional grunts, we never hear Vern talk. Yet he's in all of the promos. So who is Vern?

Ernest Goes to Jail
Vern has Tranzor Z too!
Based on what we could deduce from Ernest's monologues, here's what we know about Vern: His real name is Vernon. He's married. Vern drinks a lot of non-cola soft drinks, although he must have gone on a diet once, because Ernest introduced him to Tab. He doesn't go to the dentist, because we see the effects of all that sugar on his teeth in one commercial. He smokes, but we already covered that. He has houses in Dallas, Austin, Jacksonville, Virginia, and the Carolinas. He must be fairly rich, because he has a wine cellar in at least one of his houses, and he keeps a Ming vase in his garage. We can't be sure what he does for a living, but at one point he was the cameraman for Channel Four News.

Despite Vern's many residences, he is stalked relentlessly by one Ernest P. Worrell. Apparently Vern has a lot of trouble remembering to lock his doors, judging from the number of times Ernest enters his house uninvited at all times of the day and night. Vern must also wreck his car on a regular basis, because Ernest is constantly giving him advice on where to buy a new one.

Vern is also an avowed lover of dairy products. We know this because Ernest feels compelled to persuade Vern to buy certain brands of ice cream, milk, sour cream, cottage cheese, buttermilk, and egg nog. If these companies have poured their energies through Ernest into winning Vern as a client, the man must be dependent on huge amounts of lactose to survive.

Most importantly, we know Vern occasionally visits physical harm on Ernest, and he collects Shogun Warriors toys. We always did like Vern. Know what we mean?

Own it!

Review date: 02/16/2000

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