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STERN LEAVES AUDIENCES FEELING `BUSHWHACKED'

Did Jim Varney give up his "Ernest" franchise? If ever there was a movie that seems to spring from an unproduced "Ernest P. Worrell" script, "Bushwacked" is it.

And no, that's not a compliment.Daniel Stern, that erstwhile goofy sidekick of Joe Pesci in the "Home Alone" pictures and Billy Crystal in the "City Slickers" films goes it alone here in his first starring role. And it isn't pretty.

Mugging wildly and performing over-the-top slapstick incessantly, Stern throws himself into the character of down-on-his-luck Max Grabelski with wild abandon. But director Greg Beeman ("Mom and Dad Save the World," "License to Drive") lets him down, pushing for more when less might have made the role at least palatable. (Stern also executive-produced.)

This kind of wackiness served Stern well in his directing debut a couple of years ago, when he had a showy supporting role in "Rookie of the Year." But over the length of a feature, it quickly wears out its welcome.

In "Bushwacked" Max is a certified loser. A delivery driver for "Freedom Express," he allows himself to fall into bad company - and before you can say "I'm innocent," Max is framed for a murder.

He does manage to escape, only to become a hunted fugitive. And through a convoluted set of circumstances, Max becomes a temporary scoutmaster to a "Ranger Scout" troop and literally heads for the hills.

A city-boy through and through, Max attempts to cope with the terrors of nature, from mosquitoes (he drinks a bottle of repellant) to bees (he mistakes a hive for a pine cone) to bears (a mother bear's breath knocks him unconscious). And later, he must also evade the FBI (Jon Polito) and the bad guys (led by Anthony Heald), who track him down with help from a real scoutmaster (Brad Sullivan). Of these, Sullivan fares best, with an amusing sadistic twist to his character.

The kids are all standard-issue, pretty cute and functioning as a group rather than individual characters. Likewise the parents.

Make no mistake, this is Stern's film all the way. And for good or ill, he's all over the place, making more faces than Jim Carrey in "Dumb & Dumber" and "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective" . . . but garnering far fewer laughs.

And while most of the film is fairly benign stuff for kids, a couple of scenes seem way off base for a family picture. In one, the boys in the scout troop all urinate together off a mountainside, which showers the FBI agent below. In another, Stern uses Ken and Barbie dolls to illustrate "the birds and the bees," complete with vulgar sound effects.

"Bushwacked" is rated PG-13 (which seems appropriate, given the two aforementioned "highlights") for violence, vulgarity and profanity.