Much like Brendan Fraser's titular caveman, my memories of enjoying "Encino Man" at age 12 were inexplicably unearthed this past week. I decided to revisit the film out of curiosity, unsure if my hazy recollections of the film still held up. It would seem that some childhood memories are best left buried.
The plot of "Encino Man" is standard fish-out-of-water comedy fare. High school students Dave and Stoney (Sean Astin and Pauly Shore, both looking far too old to be playing teenagers) discover a frozen caveman while digging the foundation for a swimming pool in Dave's backyard. The two twentysomething teens thaw out the caveman (played with embarrassingly dogged commitment by Brendan Fraser), dub him "Link", and decide to integrate him into the local high school. Much like Michael J. Fox's lycanthropy in "Teen Wolf", the presence of a caveman in Dave and Stoney's company inexplicably increases the duo's popularity in school. Wacky hijinks ensue for a majority of the second and third acts as Link fumbles his way through high school and other zany aspects of modern life, repeating the same joke over and over. Try to stifle your laughter as Link fails to understand how a modern convenience works, followed by some form of slapstick joke. Eventually the movie just stops, without much of a climax. There is a halfhearted showdown with a bully character, but that too ends in the same lamebrain slapstick that comprises every other gag in the film. And of course there is a choreographed dance number at the prom, because it what would a generic comedy be without a choreographed dance number?
"Encino Man" functions best as an anti-nostalgia film. If you ever find yourself pining for all things 1990s, this movie will remind you why we left all that behind. "Encino Man" is a parade of everything regrettable from the final decade of the 20th century. The costumes in the film are garish, mismatched attempts at capturing the hip youth look. Brendan Fraser's clashing neon plaid wardrobe and Pauly Shore's pink mesh sweater are two of biggest eyesores to ever blemish the silver screen. There is also the matter of Pauly Shore, one of the more embarrassing pop culture icons of the 1990s. His character is obnoxious, speaking almost entirely in manufactured pseudo surfer dude lingo. Even worse, he cannot seem to be bothered to give the performance any energy, frequently coming across like Bill & Ted on Nyquil. This is especially apparent whenever he shares the screen with Fraser, whose spirited commitment to the role of the vacant-eyed manchild Neanderthal is equal parts admirable and concerning.
The experience of watching "Encino Man" is unpleasant on multiple levels. For one, it is a predictable and unsurprising film that fails to offer anything funny or original. But the deep-seeded unpleasantness of this film is how 1990s it is. As much as I would like the view the decade with rose-tinted glasses and only remember it as a mishmash of vaporwave aesthetics, this is as much a representation of the 1990s as anything I would rather remember. Warts and all, "Encino Man" is a time capsule of the era, and it is unpleasant for me to reconcile the cognitive dissonance that the same decade that produced many things I enjoy also produced this half-baked Pauly Shore film.