Fuzzily conceived and blandly executed, “Leave It to Beaver” is neither fish nor fowl. Not exactly a straight-faced homage to the classic TV series, but far short of an outright parody, this exceedingly mild comedy plays like the product of a committee that never reached a consensus on which direction to take. Commercial prospects are, at best, iffy. Baby boomers with fond memories of the original will probably wait for the pic’s homevideo release, while younger audiences aren’t likely to care at all.
Like the 1957-63 TV series — which enjoyed a long afterlife in reruns, and spawned a made-for-cable “New Leave It to Beaver” (1985-89) — pic focuses on the all-American Cleaver family in suburban Mayfield, Ohio. Ward (Christopher McDonald) is the wise, albeit demanding, father. June (Janine Turner) is his loving wife. Wally (Erik von Detten), their model teenage son, is just beginning to seriously notice girls. And Theodore (Cameron Finley), known as the Beaver, is a normally precocious 8-year-old boy who sometimes feels like the odd man out in this “perfect” family.
To reintroduce these pop-culture icons, writers Brian Levant (who directed “The New Leave It to Beaver” series) and Lon Diamond have cobbled together a tissue-thin plot. In the hope of getting a new bike, Beaver attempts to curry his sports-loving father’s favor by trying out for his school’s football team. The bad news is, Beaver makes the team, meaning he is pounded during practice and embarrassed during games. The worse news is, Beaver does indeed get the bike — but it is promptly stolen.
Meanwhile, Wally tries to help his best buddy, the singularly sleazy Eddie Haskell (Adam Zolotin), who needs all the help he can get while wooing a pretty classmate. But the classmate, Karen (Erika Christensen), is more taken with Wally, and, not surprisingly, this causes friction between the friends. After what seems like a very long time, everything turns out happily for just about everyone involved. The filmmakers leave the door wide open for sequels, though they need not have bothered.
During the first half of “Leave It to Beaver,” there are fleeting indications that the filmmakers may originally have considered a more satirical approach. When Ward blows his top after Beaver loses his bike, he reveals flashes of a pent-up fury that are borderline psychotic. Later on, when he’s turned on by the sight of June doing housework in pearls and a fashionable dress, Ward sounds very much like Gomez of “The Addams Family” did whenever Morticia spoke French in his presence.
At other points, director Andy Cadiff (a veteran of TV’s “Home Improvement”) hints at an eagerness to reveal the dark side of the all-American family. During a group visit to a school psychiatrist, the pic’s most inspired sequence, Wally blurts out that he constantly worries about living up to his parents’ expectations.
Unfortunately, these mildly subversive touches are separated by long stretches of unremarkable tedium. Unlike the makers of the tongue-in-cheek “Brady Bunch” movies, the people who concocted this TV-inspired feature fail to establish a consistent tone. Cadiff, Levant and Diamond may simply be too much in love with the original “Leave It to Beaver” to attempt anything more cutting than an occasional dab of spoofiness. Maybe they should have stepped aside to let David Lynch or John Waters take a crack at the material.
The lead players are well chosen and reasonably proficient, but only McDonald, effectively cast against type, and Zolotin, who amusingly looks and sounds like a pint-size Rat Packer, are standouts. Barbara Billingsley, the original June Cleaver of the TV series, has little to do in a walk-on as Beaver’s stern aunt. But Ken Osmond, the original Eddie Haskell, has a very funny cameo as Eddie’s equally sleazy father.
Production designer Perry Andelin Blake and costumer Jean Pierre Dorleac try to have it both ways, placing the pic in a contemporary setting while suggesting a timeless ’50s ambience. It’s a tricky balancing act, and it doesn’t seem worth the effort. Other tech values are adequate.