In “Troop Beverly Hills” (citywide), Shelley Long plays the Beverly Hills ditz as secular saint. Her hair is a flaming mass of just-out-of-bed baby-doll salon curls, her eyes twinkle with elfin lust. After a while, dipped into one cheerfully grotesque Theodora Van Runkle costume after another, she looks both nutty and scrumptious, like a human fruit fondue.
Long is cast as Phyllis Nefler: a Beverly Hills housewife with a name that vaguely suggests “Double Indemnity” and a mania for Rodeo Drive shopping. Phyllis’ muffler-salesman husband (Craig T. Nelson) is leaving her in disgust and her daughter is part of a notorious troop of failed scouts, or “Wilderness Girls,” whom Phyllis, in another attack of dilettantism--like her former enthusiasms for saving whales or Jane Fonda’s workouts--has agreed to head.
If you know the rules of this kind of movie game, you know immediately that:
a) Phyllis’ girls will be eccentric but lovable, cutie-pie cliches just like Phyllis herself.
b) Phyllis will take them on eccentric but lovable adventures, shot in pricey locales.
c) Phyllis will have an opposing martinet (Betty Thomas as the insidious butch madwoman Velda Plendor), who will stop at nothing to humiliate her and drive her girls out of the Wilderness.
d) Everybody will wind up loving Phyllis to pieces and loving her girls to pieces, and everyone’s family problems--including the dictator’s daughter--will get straightened out and, more than likely, Phyllis will wind up back again with her husband, who will love her to pieces too. (Love. Ain’t it wonderful!)
e) Hopefully, we in the audience, would-be Wilderness Girls or not, will emerge happier, wiser and, like Phyllis, ready for the next shopping spree.
f) While all this is going on, and while the speedy, gorgeous Shelley is zipping and stripping from one Van Runkle creation to the next (What a mad, whirling little fashion dervish she is!) we will be forced to see and hear more bad jokes than we would have thought humanly possible.
What can you say about a movie that purports to satirize, however gently, the life styles of the rich and jaded, and winds up dragging in Robin Leach, Pia Zadora and a charity fashion show? What about a high concept which wants us to react to these super-rich children as if they were waifs besieged by an evil world of K mart-crazed bullies and sadists? What market researcher dreamed up this mix of lewd slapstick and smarmy sentimentality? Are we really expected to reflect on poignant pauses in the acting career of Edd (Kookie) Byrnes? Wonder what preposterous new gown lissome Long will peel into next?
Part of this movie is like a sermon against greed delivered by a preacher in a snakeskin tuxedo with a diamond-studded cummerbund. Do we believe his oratory or his couturier?
“Troop Beverly Hills” has been very gaudily well-dressed--by Van Runkle and Hitchcock’s frequent production designer Richard Boyle--and director Jeff Kanew (“Revenge of the Nerds”) gives it a little phony gloss and zip. Kanew is good at grotesque stage business, and he’s encouraged Long into a symphony of dizzy ditz-shtick. Long is an actress who can’t throw away a line--though this is one case where she should have thrown away the whole script. But she gets points for sheer, daffy energy and rampaging pulchritude.
On the other hand, Mary Gross, who recently has been amusing in movies where almost everyone else seemed to be sinking in a sea of flop sweat (“The Couch Trip,” “Feds”) has been handed a tailor-made Mary Gross part, but with no jokes. It’s a technical challenge you wouldn’t wish on Meryl Streep; Gross is finally reduced to showing off her cleavage in a pink tutu, while Long does bellyflops in the swimming pool.
“Troop Beverly Hills” (rated PG, despite much bawdy innuendo) was based partially on the reminiscences of its producer, Ava Ostern Fries, once a chi-chi scoutmaster herself. This revelation gives you pause. Are people in Beverly Hills living in the middle of a badly written movie? Maybe not; maybe they only remember it that way.
‘TROOP BEVERLY HILLS’
A Columbia Pictures release of a Weintraub Entertainment Group presentation of a Fries Entertainment and Avanti Production. Producer Ava Ostern Fries. Director Jeff Kanew. Script Pamela Norris, Margaret Grieco Oberman. Executive producer Charles Fries. Music Randy Edelman. camera Donald E. Thorin. Editor Mark Melnick. Production design Robert F. Boyle. Costume design Theodora Van Runkle. With Shelley Long, Craig T. Nelson, Betty Thomas, Mary Gross.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).