Back to School (1986)
Release Date: June 13th, 1986 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Alan Metter Actors: Rodney Dangerfield, Sally Kellerman, Burt Young, Keith Gordon, Robert Downey Jr., Terry Farrell, M. Emmet Walsh, Adrienne Barbeau, Ned Beatty
n 1940 in New York City, young Thornton Meloni can’t seem to bring home good grades. His father berates him routinely, insisting that an education is the most important thing of all. Nonetheless, the poor boy just doesn’t have the aptitude for learning – and yet he grows up to be a wealthy businessman (Rodney Dangerfield) who changes his name to Melon. His vast success with numerous Tall & Fat stores across the nation proves his father wrong, but his failure to stay in school has subtly influenced his own son Jason (Keith Gordon) to similarly lose faith in the furthering of his education.
When Thornton’s pompous, unfaithful wife Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau) demands a divorce during a showy party at their extravagant home, he readily hands over previously prepared papers. Relieved, he takes the opportunity to have his uncompromising chauffeur Lou (Burt Young) drive him to see Jason at the Grand Lakes University, where he believes his son is the star of the diving team. In reality, the coach won’t even speak to the student, relegating the unaccomplished swimmer to the embarrassing position of towel boy. Furthermore, Jason’s grades are average; his only friend is the dorky Derek Lutz (a young Robert Downey Jr., still brandishing a gap between his teeth), a rebellious, wild-haired, progressively-dressed misfit with no other friends; and Jason sincerely believes he’d be better off dropping out of school completely and getting a job. In a last-ditch attempt to motivate his son, Thornton buys his way into enrollment and proceeds to finish college alongside Jason – but not without hilariously disastrous ramifications.
The supporting roles are phenomenally funny, including the grandiloquent, permanently annoyed business teacher Dr. Phillip Barbay (Paxton Whitehead), who takes the part of the primary nemesis (and proclaims that Thornton, who openly bought his way out of the gutter, is the decline of modern education); Dean David Martin (Ned Beatty), the easily purchased, pushover figurehead; the dispassionate Coach Turnbull (M. Emmet Walsh); and the scarily fervent Professor Terguson (Sam Kinison). It’s a welcome change to see Dangerfield share the spotlight, as he presents his usual shtick, nervously twitching and bulging his eyes while spouting nonstop verbal gags. To complement the rapid-fire jokes is Danny Elfman’s memorable music, arranged in a superbly fast-paced, quirky, and jovial manner. His opening title theme is perhaps the best part of the entire film (there are also several band performances to supplement the soundtrack, including one by Oingo Boingo, Elfman’s own group).
As for the plot, Thornton’s intrusion into college doesn’t disrupt Jason’s life nearly as much as it should (especially at first), considering the elderly freshman throws around money, livens up parties, and continually loses his shirt. To create conflict, Jason can’t form his own identity and enjoy college life while his father’s fortunes heavily influence his advancement. There’s also a note on cheating, though it’s lost in the silliness of paying others to do Thornton’s work for him – such as having astronomy homework finished by NASA and hiring Kurt Vonnegut himself to compose a paper on Kurt Vonnegut.
The comedy also wanes when love interests meddle with the pacing; Sally Kellerman is the free-spirited Diane Turner, a poetry instructor and romantic match for Thornton, while Jason is paired up with the attractive girl, Valerie (Terry Farrell), who is dating the equivalently popular, muscular, blond swimmer Chas (William Zabka). The climax is a combination of nonsensical accomplishments (involving Thornton diving as a substitute on his son’s team and binge-studying to pass a grueling oral examination when accused of handing in fraudulent work), which would lend to the popular “Old School” while borrowing from “Animal House” (writer Harold Ramis had a hand in both “Animal House” and “Back to School”). Despite mediocrity seeping into the plot to outshine Dangerfield’s signature jests, this is still one of his most appealing projects.
– Mike Massie