Sportsflicks: "Slam Dunk Ernest," or Ernest Saves Cap Space

What if I told you that a pair of magical shoes could turn a tapped-out bumpkin character into a basketball star in a movie that manages to disrespect every major religion, and many other things?
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Jim Varney was one of my first childhood heroes, and among the first to let me down. Given that I was growing up in the late 1980’s, in a world in which I worshipped Pee-Wee Herman, Michael Jackson, Jose Canseco and the dad from Beetlejuice, this was quite the feat. The prospect of having my four-year-old self sitting alone watching a forty-year-old manchild undoubtedly freaked out my parents, though I was able to still watch “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” until Pee-Wee went into a theatre and off the air. Varney’s most famous character, Ernest P. Worrell, can be seen as the inspiration for Larry The Cable Guy, not to mention Eric Roberts’ Oscar-nominated performance in the 1985 film Runaway Train.

It was not any such indiscretion on Varney’s part but the cancellation of the TV show “Hey Vern, It’s Ernest!” after one glorious season that sent me into decades worth of disillusionment. Countless movies and blooper reels did little to rekindle the passion I once had for the Ernest canon, although like the rest of America I mourned the loss of Varney to lung cancer in 2000. I otherwise separated the intellectual and talented Varney from his Not-Larry-Back-When-Cable-Was-Still-A-Luxury Guy character, which I like to imagine Varney would have appreciated.

But this initial disappointment was not the end of my relationship with Ernest. As a grown manchild myself, and thanks to YouTube, I can combine my pining for a world forever lost with my innate knack for watching films co-starring Cylk Cozart. The 1995 direct-to-video classic Slam Dunk Ernest is ahead of its time, if only in the sense that Wikipedia has a “citation needed” quote listing its “magic shoes” subplot as being reused for 2002’s Like Mike.

We begin with a flashback to 1964, when young Ernest P. Worrell first picks up a basketball. This being an Ernest movie, it immediately goes into hijinks later repeated in Barry Levinson’s gritty hit comedy Sleepers, with all the tragic horseplay-consequences implied. Thirty years and fourteen saved Christmases later, Worrell is working at a mall, the only Caucasian in a cleanup crew which just so happens -- in a plot detail that is not at all racially tone deaf -- to double as a pick-up basketball squad. The team leader, played by the aforementioned celebrity basketball circuit legend Cozart, lets Ernest on the team as a “mascot,” which honestly makes all of us other mascots look bad, and cheerleaders look even worse. Needless to say, Ernest costs the Clean Sweep a victory in the city tournament without stepping foot onto the court. Despondent, he looks to God for solutions, and is answered by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the fricking Archangel Of Basketball.

Kareem is the best part of Slam Dunk Ernest by far. He’s a good actor, who knows how to have fun in any role he’s in, be it openly mocking John Stamos’ lack of ball skills, or typecast as a man warning the world of its impending demise. (Anyone that has not watched Abdul-Jabbar’s performances in Airplane!, Fletch, or Stephen Colbert’s Hiphopketball II: The Rejazzebration Re-Mix ‘06, should be advised that doing so might be time better spent than searching for his four or five scenes in this movie.) Anyway, Kareem gives Ernest a pair of “Utopian Flight” shoes, which are really just the store-brand sneakers you buy when you’re too cheap to spend forty dollars on yourself. This pair, though, is more -- for lack of a better word -- sentient.

As his adventure progresses, it’s tough not to wish that these shoes taught Ernest some fundamentals, or that Mr. Worrell himself had read Basketball For People Who Don’t Understand Basketball For Dummies, by Doug Collins and Eddie Jordan. Knowing when to pass and when to shoot would remove most of the film’s non-semi-religious drama, but it would also deprive us of a ping-pong paddle trick shot Ernest calls his “Gump Dunk.” You get it. There’s a lot of “it’s gotta be the shoes” action in Slam Dunk Ernest, and whatever “action” there is undermines the point that footwear doesn’t help you win, at least until Ernest (spoiler alert) tosses the sneakers, and drains a Rube Goldbergian game winner.

Sure enough, fame goes to Ernest’s head as he keeps winning with those divinity-imbued Walmart sneakers. At Ernest’s most dickish, he has the ball-stopping instincts of Kobe Bryant and the Spoonerized Armani wardrobe of Buzz Bissinger. A strange man named Zamiel Moloch bribes a demure lottery ticket clerk into seducing Ernest as part of a plan to take the soul of Cylk Cozart’s son. Between his name and his greedy disposition, you’re kinda relieved that Moloch is actually a demon, and not the horrible anti-Semitic stereotype he could well have been. There is, however, a point where Ernest is introduced under the name Ernie Ali-Worrell, as godless costumed characters bicycle him onto the court for the big game. Slam Dunk Ernest counts as a Christian film, if only because Christianity is the Abrahamic religion least sullied by its portrayal.

***

Eventually, Clean Sweep faces the Charlotte Hornets In Name Only in an exhibition game. In an earlier scene, the shoe store owner/Heterosexual Harvey Fierstein/demon character is seen with a Hornets player, who is wearing a team jersey without any numbers on it, presumably so as not to offend Kenny Gattison. No actual Charlotte Hornets appear in the movie; presumably they were all gunning for the Kendall Gill “My Brother And Me” spot.

The filmmakers don’t even try to hide that this final game is being played in the Vancouver Canucks’ old arena, and neither were they willing to get enough stand-in dolls to give the illusion of a lower-bowl crowd in parts. They can’t even afford actual ESPN talent to pull off a cameo, and get whatever British Columbian equivalents they can get to fill the roles. Also, the mall they work at is the one from the TV show “21 Jump Street.” Slam Dunk Ernest is not a great or even very good film, but it is difficult to think of a thriftier one.

Things wind up as well as they can for everyone, except for Ernest. The Clean Sweep get offers from NBA scouts, and given that Miguel A. Nunez, Jr. is on the team, one can easily extrapolate that the Ernest and Juwanna Mann universes are one and the same. Cylk Cozart proves to his son that he is the real hero, without initially realizing that his freaking son was missing for the entire second half of the game, returning a pair of shoes that he stole. And the lottery ticket sales lady (as played by the actress best known for portraying the kangaroo from "Zoobilee Zoo") basically goes to Hell. For all this, Ernest gets nothing, not even the net.

Needless to say, the whole Ernest franchise was running out of steam by the time Slam Dunk Ernest was produced. Mr. Worrell would go on to go to Africa and join the Army before finally (and according to half the Jim Varney obituaries out there), going to heaven. You kinda get the notion that Varney and director John R. Cherry III are going through the motions to a certain extent after over a decade selling dairy products and shilling for car dealerships and drinking Mello Yello, and it’s sad to see a genuinely funny character (in small doses) on his last lanky legs, especially without Gailard Sartain or Varney in drag to do some heavy lifting.

The game as played in Slam Dunk Ernest is not the funniest basketball you’ll ever see, nor the saddest, but this is an Ernest movie, dammit, and so you knew that. Anyway, it worked for the purpose of eventually getting NBA basketball out of Vancouver and Charlotte. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is good in just about anything; in sports movies, Roger Ebert’s Stanton-Walsh Rule becomes the Abdul-Jabbar Rule. Which is not to say Slam Dunk Ernest isn’t terrible -- it is. But just imagine Alex English, for instance, as the Archangel Of Basketball. Let’s be thankful for small blessings, even when they present themselves in the form of glorified cameos and mystical Walmart high-tops.


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