Back to School (1986)

26 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Back to School” is a comedy starring comedian Rodney Dangerfield—that it’s delightful is a rarity since many movies featuring the hilarious Dangerfield tend to underplay his talent, rather than glorify it. Dangerfield is a very funny guy. He not only looks funny (which I mean in the nicest way possible—I mean, he looks funny because he widens his eyes and sweats whenever he’s anxious). He is funny. His infamous one-liners hit almost every time he delivers.

But about “Back to School”—Rodney Dangerfield is this movie. The movie is as routine as you’d expect, but it is pleasant enough and Dangerfield has a lot of fun playing center stage. He plays Thornton Melon, a wealthy clothing manufacturer (he owns a chain of Tall & Fat Shops) who cares for his son Jason (Keith Gordon, playing it sincere), a college student. Melon believes his son is a fraternity member and a star of the diving team. But when he arrives at the university for a surprise visit, he finds that Jason is actually the campus wimp who “don’t get no respect.” (By the way, I love this line Dangerfield delivers when Jason reveals that he lied about his popularity—“I’m your father. You don’t lie to me—you lie to girls.”)

Jason tells his dad that he’s thinking of dropping out. To change his mind, Melon decides to enroll himself as a freshman, to show Jason how important and easy it is to stay in school (which has the obvious flaw, since Melon never had a full education). Thanks to the venal administrator (get this—he’s referred to as “Dean” Martin), he’s able to take classes and show Jason the ropes while also playing by his own rules.

“Back to School” has its share of predictable stock characters—the bland but attractive bombshell that Jason pines for (who is a brunette instead of a blonde—a change for the 80s teen movie genre); the mean-spirited jock who always gives Jason and his punk buddy Derek (Robert Downey, Jr.) a hard time; and of course, the stuffy, overdressed professor (Paxton Whitehead) who, of course, doesn’t find Melon’s charm and humor appealing and sees Melon as a threat to a prestigious institution. (Oh, and did I mention that he has a snooty British accent?) While these three are obligatory and not that entertaining, other side characters are obligatory but also welcome and well-cast. One is that “punk buddy” character I mentioned, played by Robert Downey Jr., who has a unique comic presence; one is Ned Beatty as “Dean” Martin; another is Burt Young as Lou, Melon’s chauffer; there’s the reliable character actor M. Emmet Walsh as the diving instructor; and of course, there’s the sweet romantic interest—Sally Kellerman as the English teacher who shares a relationship with Melon as the story continues. But my favorite has to be Sam Kinison as a crazed Vietnam-veteran/history-teacher. He has very little to do, but his moments are very amusing.

The story is as standard and predictable as the characters, but it still has its funny moments, mostly thanks to fresh touches provided by the film’s writers (Steven Kampmann, Will Porter, Peter Torokvei, and Harold Ramis) and of course Dangerfield’s improvisations. For example, get a load of the scene in which Melon has to buy his books, using many credit cards—“Shakespeare for everybody!” he exclaims to everyone present. How about when he is assigned term papers? Who do you get to help? Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., of course! And I won’t give away more of the film’s gags. This isn’t going to one of those reviews of comedies that spoil gags to make the review funnier.

What it all comes down to is Rodney Dangerfield as Melon. He is what makes “Back to School” delightful. He’s hilarious every time he’s on screen. His improvisational one-liners are enough to make anyone smile, and it seems that everyone in the movie (aside from the snooty professor who practically has no soul) smile and chuckle, while the rest of us are laughing more. He makes this movie work.

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