Summer School (1987)

11 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s “guilty-pleasure” time again here on “Smith’s Verdict” with the 1987 Carl Reiner comedy “Summer School.” There are quite a few Carl Reiner comedies that I very much enjoy without guilt, such as “All of Me” starring Steve Martin. Compared to such comedies to come out of the ‘80s, say the “teenage sex comedies,” “Summer School” is tamer and also sillier, but it’s wonderfully so in the latter category. Parts about it work and make me smile/laugh; other parts are predictable and not particularly funny. But the aspects of the former are enough to make me watch it on DVD, and I’m sure I liked it a little more than the average film critic (I’m assuming). I certainly liked it a lot more than the late Roger Ebert, who had this to say about the film in his overwhelmingly negative review: “It’s a vaporfilm. You see it, you leave the theater, and then it evaporates, leaving just a slight residue, something like a vaguely unpleasant taste in the memory.” Ouch.

“Summer School” was the feature debut of then-TV star Mark Harmon, famous for his role in “St. Elsewhere” at the time before making himself better known in today’s NBC crime series “NCIS.” Here, he plays Freddy Shoop, a California high school gym teacher who doesn’t care for quality education and is a laid-back surfer type who would like nothing better to do for the summer than vacation in Hawaii with his girlfriend. But at the end of the school semester, he has the misfortune of having to teach summer-school Remedial English. “I ain’t no English teacher,” he tells snooty vice-principal Gills (Robin Thomas). “See? Double-negative.” But when his girlfriend leaves him (and by the way, I notice that Shoop is so laid-back that he doesn’t even feel anything when his superficial girlfriend leaves him for Hawaii), the job doesn’t seem so bad when he realizes he’ll be teaching in the classroom next to Robin Bishop (Kirstie Alley), the obligatory sexy teacher who may or may not ultimately fall for Shoop in the end. Until then, she sees Shoop as a fool, and, oh yeah, is dating Gills. Oh boy…

Shoop’s students are the usual gang of rejects and misfits, but they’re not harmless and they have their own quirks and likable qualities for Shoop to care about them. Shoop has fun with them and even schedules field-trips for their pleasure (going to the amusement park, then going to the beach), before Gills informs him that all of the students have to pass the upcoming English exam at the end of the summer term or else Shoop won’t be granted tenure. So in exchange for the students making an effort to learn, Shoop does each one of them a favor (he chauffeurs a couple of them around, teaches one how to drive, and so on). And to become a better teacher, he gains tips from Robin, who let me remind you may or may not be the love-interest (OK, let’s be honest—she is).

Let’s talk about the students. The students are probably the most entertaining parts of the film. With good young actors to play them, they all have their unique quirks and character traits that aid their appeal. Sometimes, they’re a little too real to be funny, but they are still likable. There’s Denise (Kelly Jo Minter), a dyslexic (I’ll get to that later) who also has trouble with driving and needs some teaching for the upcoming test; Eakian (Richard Horvitz), a squeaky-voiced geek who is appealing enough for even the students to like him (he’s also the one who negotiates with Shoop about the favors in exchange for learning); Larry (Ken Olandt), who sleeps during class (and even asks for a cot) because he works as a stripper at night; Kevin (Patrick Labyorteaux), a linebacker who must pass the English exam to get himself back on the football team; Rhonda (Shawnee Smith), a seven-months-pregnant girl who claims to have had sex with Sean Penn and David Lee Roth; and Anna-Maria (Fabiana Udenio), a sexy Italian exchange student whom Chainsaw and Dave lust after.

Who are Chainsaw and Dave? I was saving them for last. They’re my favorite characters in the movie. They are two horror movie buffs, Francis “Chainsaw” Gremp (Dean Cameron) and Dave (Gary Riley). They’re best buddies who do everything together, and provide a lot of the film’s comedic highlights. They’re also masters of gore, as they use latex rubber who stage two grotesque horror-film-like moments, such as “the bunnies from hell” and most memorably, the classroom massacre. In fact, they’re probably too good to be pulling this off, but their idol is Rick Baker (who is the subject of their first assignment, “Who We Admire Most in the World and Why”), so I guess they did their homework for that particular topic. Their favorite movie is also “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which Chainsaw has Shoop arrange a screening for in class.

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By the way, that “classroom massacre” scene, in which all the students prank Gills and a visiting grade-school teacher with Chainsaw and Dave’s makeup and effects, is very grotesque. I bet if it wasn’t staged, the movie would have gotten an R rating instead of a PG-13. We’re talking slit throats, saw blade in the head, intestines being played with, and most memorably, a tongue being pulled out. These guys should have taken pictures and mailed them to Rick Baker personally.

Oh yeah, and then there’s Pam (Courtney Thorne-Smith), a surfer-type who fakes menstruation to skip class and go surfing, and who also develops an icky crush on the “spiritual” Shoop. At one point, she even moves in with him. Nothing physical is involved—Shoop doesn’t think of her that way; although, I have to admit that it is kind of unpleasant to see a 16-year-old as kind of a maid for 30-year-old Shoop’s services.

Oh, and by the way, logic does not play in “Summer School’s” favor. For example, three questions about the class’ field-trip to the amusement park. First of all, how did Shoop gain authorization to arrange this in the first place? Gills is an uptight jerk who clearly hates and resents Shoop, and it’s obvious he’s in charge. Second, how was seven-months-pregnant Rhonda even allowed to ride the Go-Carts, let alone a Rollercoaster? Isn’t that some kind of a hazard? Third, come on—Denise can’t even drive a go-cart without taking it off the track? Give me a break. Oh, and then there’s the deal about Denise being dyslexic. How did no one notice at all? “She swept through the system” is the only excuse. Yeah, right.

But then again, this is the same movie in which one of the summer-school students has apparently spent the entire term in the bathroom because his “zipper got stuck.” (Though, that doesn’t help explain the disappearance of many other students seen in that class at the beginning of the term.)

Also, these kids are not bad kids, at least not enough to be considered “delinquents” or “criminals.” I mean, sure, they cause a little bit of trouble, but really, what high-school kid doesn’t? Gills’ labeling of these kids is inaccurate, which I guess is supposed to show how stuck-up he is, but it bugged the hell out of me.

So I’ve listed a few things that don’t work about “Summer School” and quite a few that I like about it. What else do I like about it? Well, Mark Harmon is well-cast as Shoop. He’s funny, likable, and has good comic timing when playing off the students or Kirstie Alley, who is admittedly sharp here despite being saddled with the role of obligatory romantic-interest.

And I also admired the ending, which doesn’t go for the easy way out with the kids passing the English exam after finally studying hard to prepare for it. Actually, a neat surprise here is that some of them don’t, but they all have improved greatly since the previous exam, which boosts the kids’ self-respect and makes Shoop seem like a real teacher, which he has become.

So maybe “Summer School” is a little too safe at times and some of the laughs come cheap, but for me, it is entertaining and appealing enough for me to watch it every now and then. Because not many others feel the same way, I can pretty much call it a “guilty-pleasure.” In other words, it’s at least a B- or a C+. But hey—it’s a passing grade.

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