Originally released May 22, 1992
Written by George Zaloom & Shawn Schepps
Directed by Les Mayfield
Starring Sean Astin, Brendan Fraser, and Pauly Shore
My rating: ★ 1/2 stars
High school geek and wacky pal dig up caveman. Predictable hijinks ensue.
All-around schlub Dave (Sean Astin) and his buddy Stoney (Pauly Shore) uncover a Cro-Magnon man (Brendan Fraser) while digging a pool in Dave’s backyard. Dave, who had thought to leverage the pool as a pathway to popularity, decides that caveman, whom he names Link (as in the “missing link”), will be his new ticket to fame, fortune, and respect.
The early 1990s were a teen movie desert. Encino Man is one of the few teen movies from that era, and, despite featuring Pauly Shore, a distinctly 1990s phenomenon, the movie is, at its core, a tired retread of teen movies made in the 1980s.
Like The Heavenly Kid (1985) and Can’t Buy Me Love (1987), Dave discovers that, in his quest to become popular, he becomes a complete jerk. One of the problems with Encino Man is that Dave is kind of a jerk to begin with. One of his goals is to win the heart of his childhood friend Robyn (Megan Ward), but he wants her only because she has since become a “babe.” Throughout the film, Dave treats both Stoney and Link with contempt. And the script requires no comeuppance and only a small amount of self-reflection for Dave to be redeemed and rewarded. Astin brings nothing to the role. He doesn’t even seem like the same actor who is so moving in Where the Day Takes You, which was released the same year as Encino Man, or who was so effective in Staying Together (1989), a sadly underappreciated gem. Certainly, he shows none of the inherent goodness that he brought to the role of Samwise Gamgee.
The most engaging performance in the movie comes from Brendan Fraser, in his first starring role. Without much dialogue (as his character is a defrosted caveman), he still manages to convey a full character arc, adding to a rather thin script by making the most of the scenes he’s given. One particularly touching moment occurs during a high school field trip to a natural history museum, where Link realizes that the world he knows is gone. Fraser is an endearing presence, bringing a warmth to a movie without much else to recommend it.
Unfortunately, too many of Link’s scenes involve Stoney teaching Link how to speak and act like Pauly Shore. I suppose that, in the making of the movie, there had to have been people who thought these scenes were funny. But most people, I would imagine, could only view these scenes as annoying and tedious. Nevertheless, the character of Stoney is not completely without redeeming qualities. When Stoney is not allowed to go off into Pauly Shore’s usual antics, he’s actually a strong voice of empathy in the film.
Rounding out the cast is Michael DeLuise (channeling William Zabka) in the role of Robyn’s bully boyfriend and Robin Tunney as Robyn’s more adventurous friend, Ella. Tunney shows a spark in the smaller role that Ward fails to bring to the female lead. The film might have been a lot more interesting had it focused on Link and Ella and not the two wet blankets they hang around with. Rose McGowan can be glimpsed briefly as a high school student.
The situations the characters encounter lack any originality. Link and company must go through the obligatory driver’s ed and prom sequences. There’s even a montage at an amusement park. No one bothers to ask why a new kid shows up during the last couple weeks of senior year. These situations seem particularly tired and illogical. By 1992, we’d seen all the pieces of this movie before, albeit without the caveman. The soundtrack also features such 1980s acts as Def Leppard and Vince Neil, but, by the time the movie came out, young people had rejected the hair bands for a new sound, and Encino Man features a distinct lack of grunge sensibility. And flannel.
That Encino Man is a bad movie is never in doubt. The only question is the degree of badness. It’s not hilariously awful, like cult favorite Eegah (1962). Nor is it completely meritless. The best one can say about it is that it’s not as bland and annoying as it could have been.