Synopsis: A soon to be divorced Beverly Hills socialite is determined to prove to her husband and herself that she can finish what she starts out to do, by becoming a den mother to a troop of Beverly Hills Girl Scouts.
Stars: Shelley Long, Craig T. Nelson, Audra Lindley, Betty Thomas, Mary Gross, Jenny Lewis, Ami Foster, Carla Gugino, Heather Hopper, Kellie Martin, Emily Schulman, Tasha Scott, Aquilina Soriano, Stephanie Beacham, Karen Kopins, Dinah Lacey, Shelley Morrison, Tori Spelling
Director: Jeff Kanew
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review (The Movie): I know this is going to come as a great shock to you but when I was a youngster I hung around our local movie rental store quite a lot. This was before the big chains started to dominate so Good Neighbor Video had the, uh, good fortune of getting a nearly daily visit from me which included a lengthy browse of any given section and long discussions with the bored college age clerks about the latest releases. My enthusiasm for not just the movies but for the rental business in general resulted in the eventual winning over of the middle-aged owners (a true mom and pop set-up) and they were kind enough to toss my way a few publicity extras they weren’t able to use.
Back then these stores were flooded with promo materials to hype even the tiniest of releases. Anything from small desk displays of movie scenes to playful mobiles with actors heads dancing around a lit up movie title to full size standees, there was always something new coming out. The most traditional of these and my favorite was the movie poster because they were so easy to display and they covered the aging wallpaper in my bedroom. At this video store, they had room to display about eight posters and the owners always opted for, obviously, the latest and most exciting releases, far less than the 20 or 30 posters they’d get every month to coincide with the new batch of titles coming out. I remember vividly stopping by the video store and getting a new roll of unused posters, bringing them home, and unrolling this one, which was right on top.
Even at a mere nine years old, I knew who Shelley Long was, having been taken by my parents to see her previous film, 1987’s Hello Again. While Long had already starred in a handful of successful movies, I’d learn later how 1989’s Troop Beverly Hills was her first film after famously leaving her hit show Cheers at the close of its fifth season. What I didn’t know at the time was Troop Beverly Hills had tanked at the box office, making a mere $8 million off of an $18 million budget and it’s pending VHS release was its final step before fading into obscurity…but I knew I had to see it.
Well, I eventually did see Troop Beverly Hills and it was everything I wanted it to be and more. Fun, funny, with jokes that I understood and even more jokes that I didn’t, and it was all wrapped up in a bouncy bow by its star. I was too young to scoff at the fact it was ignored at the box office and maligned by snooty toot critics but over the years any time I returned to it I never could figure out just what about this didn’t strike the right chord at the time. Watching it again as an adult at a fun screening at our local Alamo Drafthouse (more on that below) I was kind of amazed by how well the movie holds up…and not just as a safe PG sleepover staple. Providing a sturdy message for young girls on the road to figuring themselves out and not worrying about what icky boys want to see, Troop Beverly Hills earns its patches and then some for comedic longevity.
Spoiled California housewife Phyllis Neffler (Long, Outrageous Fortune) has signed up to donate her time before. She’s tried giving her hands across America saving the whales but can’t quite follow through with anything due to her busy shopping schedule. However, with her marriage to Fred (Craig T. Nelson, Poltergeist) in shambles she needs a new focus and decides to take on the role of Wilderness Girl troop leader for her pre-teen daughter Hannah (Jenny Lewis) and her seven gal pals from elite families in Beverly Hills. Resistant to their new den mother at first after seeing a revolving door of previous candidates, the troop warms up once they realize she’s just as inexperienced and lost as they are and won’t retreat at the first sign of conflict.
That’s good for them but bad for Velda Plender (Betty Thomas, who eventually became a semi-successful film/television director, working with Long again in The Brady Bunch Movie) an ex-Army nurse now the de facto rule keeper for the Wilderness Girl troop leaders. A bully and a cheat, she recoils at the way Phyllis tries to treat the organization as the fun experience it as and less like the survivalist preparation Velda would prefer it to be. Dispatching her cronie Annie (Mary Gross, Big Business) to infiltrate Phyllis and her troop, Velda tries to stop Troop Beverly Hills from making it to the annual Jamboree and being named troop of the year.
Adding a dose of real life fun to the mix is knowing the movie is loosely based on the life of producer Ava Ostern Fries who turned her stories of being a Brownie Leader into the basis for the movie and it’s a concept that has a lot of legs to it. Sure, it’s easy to plumb the mines of the vapid lives of the rich and famous for ways to get Phyllis out of her comfort zone but the screenplay never sets out to make her (or the girls) look stupid, inept, or less capable than anyone else if they just set their mind to it. If anything, the movie levels its harshest criticism at those that demand rule and order above all else in refusing to let people dance to the beat of their own drum. While a great many jokes are made about Phyllis and her monetary ways, that spend spend spend attitude is countered with a backstory about the lean early years of her marriage where her thriftiness helped keep her family together.
It’s a pity this first post-Cheers film wasn’t a success because Long (dressed in a never-ending display of hysterically artistic outfits by famed costume designer Theadora Van Runkle, Stella) is joyously winning as the effervescent Phyllis. Too self-involved to know when Velda is making fun of her and, frankly, too above it all to care what she thinks anyway, Long works hard to give Phyllis more than just the cookie cutter image of the Beverly Hills stay at home and shop housewife. Playing the villain, Thomas is a hoot and works well solo or pinging off of Long or the meek Gross playing the mousey Marcie to Thomas’s pernicious Peppermint Patty. As the lone male with any significant presence, Nelson has to be beefcake sometimes and agitator at others and he manages to make both interesting without getting in the way of Phyllis or her girls.
Making up the rest of the cast, aside from a now-preserved in amber amount of 80s celebrities that many youngsters nowadays won’t even understand the references to, are an array of young starlets pulled from television shows, commercials, and minor roles in afterschool specials. Aside from Kellie Martin who had a steady career on several hit TV shows watch for a fresh-faced Carla Gugino (San Andreas) as a snobby brat who realizes Phyllis and the troop are the closest thing she has to a dependable family environment. All are energetic but there seems to be at least one too many as they fail to be quite as defined as they could be. Of the ones that do shine, most memorable is Tasha Scott’s Jasmine who receives the best introduction and gets to sing the unofficial (and officially catchy) theme song of the movie, “Cookie Time” on Rodeo Drive while wearing a Tina Turner wig.
For a movie so locked in its time and place, it’s remarkable how little the movie has shown its wrinkles. It still plays like gangbusters and I think the more trivial asides have actually gotten more meaningful when you consider how marginalized little girls/young women have become in the years since the film was released. It may have packed up its theatrical campground early but Troop Beverly Hills found a new life in overnight rentals in the years since. Give it a watch…you’ll be surprised by how much you enjoy it.
Review (The Quote-Along): So why review Troop Beverly Hills now, you may ask? Well, first off, here was a chance to see the movie on the big screen, something I’d never had the chance to do until now. The Alamo Drafthouse in Woodbury, MN has a way with their programming and finding the right mix between bringing back underseen gems and stirring fond nostalgia and when I saw this one was coming up I just couldn’t resist. A bonus was that this was to be no ordinary screening of Troop Beverly Hills where the audience would sit idly by while noshing on their loaded fries, pizza, or cleverly crafted cocktail skillfully served by stealthy servers. No, this was to be a two pronged bit of fun.
First…it was part of their Champagne Cinema signature series of screenings. I’ll let Alamo’s website describe what that is in detail:
Just like a glass of bubbles, there’s a special type of film that can lift your spirits and add a bit of sparkle to your day. From movies you watched endlessly at slumber parties to new favorites that feel like old friends, Champagne Cinema provides a generous pour of heart, humor and happy endings. Each film is paired with a themed cocktail to match the effervescence on screen, and the audience is encouraged to toast, cheer and swoon along. So bring along a friend (or five) and prepare for a theatrical experience that pops. Bottoms up!
So while the theme drinks of the night were The Freddie and The Thin Mint Cocktail there were still more surprises yet to come because audiences would also be treated to a Quote-Along experience featuring animated subtitles and our own themed gifts. The gifts were a green beret so we could all be Wilderness Girls (and Guys) and a set of stickers/patches modeled after the ones seen in the film. All in all, a fun bit of swag to walk into and away with and while I didn’t partake in the cocktails both sounded better than other themed drinks at similar events.
As to the actual quote-along experience? Well, I think living in the Midwest it all depends on the audience and the movie. I’ve been to a number of movie parties where this kind of audience participation is encouraged and though the theater employs a nice hype-man that comes out at the beginning to get the crowd warmed up, the energy level just never rises above a low simmer. Still, this was the first time the quotes were on the screen and that seemed to stimulate more shout-outs…and definitely more signing when “Cookie Time” came around.
Strangely, the front half of the movie seemed loaded with quotes at every turn with not every one being something I’d consider a valued line from the film but it definitely tapered off as the comedy went on. I’m wondering if that was somehow intentional because it was in that final 40 minutes or so when the subtitles that appeared seemed to really select the most well known quotes. What’s great about this set-up is that even if you are a little shy you feel a bit more emboldened sitting in the dark to yell out your favorite quote without feeling embarrassed.
If you have an Alamo Drafthouse near your residence you should check the theater out regardless but definitely keep your eye out for these types of special events. The price may seem a little high (anywhere from $12 to $16) but that’s also what you’d pay for a normal ticket on a weekend and you don’t get the props or one of a kind experience this offers. The best bet is to find a movie you really like and try your first Movie Party out and see what you think. It really is a fun new way to spend a night at the movies.