Our review of Back To School (Blu-ray), published July 11th, 2011, is also available.
College life is much easier with a few million dollars!
A thoroughly enjoyable piece of mid-'80s silliness, Back to School is an excellent vehicle for Rodney Dangerfield, the comedian famous for getting no respect. A pity that the disc is a rather underwhelming entry from MGM.
It's no good pretending that Back to School is a timeless gem that will stand the test of time along with Shakespeare's best comedies, but it should still tickle your funny bone (and perhaps be numbered amongst your guilty pleasures!). For better or worse, your enjoyment of Back to School is going to depend on whether or not Rodney Dangerfield (who wrote the original story) appeals to your sense of humor. Here he is his usual self, a brash, lovable, party-animal who is forever tweaking the noses of the arrogant and the humorless, whose humor is broadly played for everyman appeal.
Adding to the durability of Back to School is the surprisingly strong supporting cast who hold their own against Rodney Dangerfield's starring role. To single out any one actor is difficult, but as a whole I was impressed with their ability to be humorous or genuinely sensitive as needed, without seeming awkward or out of place. On a bittersweet note, Back to School marks the film debut and finale of the foul-mouthed yet achingly funny Sam Kinison, who owed his role to the assistance of his friend Rodney Dangerfield.
As the film opens, we find Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield): a self-made business tycoon who built a small clothing shop into a sprawling, hugely profitable business empire. His first wife died several years previously, and his new wife, Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau) is a snobbish shrew. When Thornton's crass disregard for his wife's party prompts her to walk out on him (assisted by finding her in flagrante with Giorgio (Robert Picardo, recently seen as a holographic doctor in Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: First Contact)), Thornton figures it's about time to take a trip and visit his son at college.
Jason (Keith Gordon—Christine) is not doing as well as he had led his father to believe. He's not in a fraternity, he's the towel boy for the diving team, and his grades aren't very good. His only friend is Derek (Robert Downey Jr.—Bowfinger, U.S. Marshals, Less Than Zero), a rabble-rousing militant sort who is, well…odd. His unattainable dream girl, Valerie Desmond (Terry Farrell, Lt. Jadzia Dax on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) is dating swim team jock Chas Osborn (William Zabka). Thornton is shocked to learn the true state of affairs, so he decides (being a high school dropout himself) to go to college alongside his son and help. The difficulties of admission are served by donating "a really big check" for a new school of business building to Dean Martin (Ned Beatty, recently seen as Det. Stanley Bolander on Homicide: Life on the Street), much to the stiff-necked outrage of Professor Phillip Barbay (Paxton Whitehead), head of the business school.
Thornton makes a big splash on campus with his novel method for class registration, free spending hand, and his creation of a huge fantasy dorm suite, complete with hot tub, full kitchen, and more. His professors are an interesting lot, ranging from the frosty Professor Barbay, to the seething volcano of Professor Turgeson (Sam Kinison) in American History class, to the warm free-spirit of Dr. Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman) in English class, with whom Thornton falls hopelessly in love. Needless to say, Thornton pays far more attention to carousing on campus and romancing Dr. Turner than studying his books. He figures that with NASA doing his astronomy homework, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. writing a report on himself, and an army of his workers doing the rest of his assignments, he can't lose.
Meanwhile, Jason doggedly pursues the sweetly smiling Valerie Desmond, slowly earning her attention and good feeling, and a second effort (at his father's urging) lands him a spot on the diving team. Of course, Thornton Melon soon finds out the limits of his money. Dr. Turner flunks him for turning in work that was not his own, and Dr. Barbay formally accuses him of academic fraud. Regretfully, Dean Martin gives Thornton the ultimatum that to stay in school he must pass comprehensive oral examinations from all of his professors. Faced with that impossible task, Thornton is ready to pack it all in when Jason motivates him (along with help from Derek and others) to embark upon a marathon, burning-the-candle-at-three-ends cram session and try to stay in school.
In the final act of Back to School, Thornton not only faces trial by ordeal for his academic life, but also is hauled out of the stands for a last minute, do or die attempt to win a swim meet, while Jason faces the stern test of finally winning Valerie Desmond's heart. While this story is not entirely without gaping plot holes or rampant silliness, it should at least provoke a good supply of laughs and snickers.
The audio is perhaps typical for a movie of its era. As a comedy, it is not overly surprising to find that the soundfield is narrowly centered, with the front surrounds playing a minor supporting role, and the rear surrounds even more so, with only limited ambient fill. The overall sound, while clear, lacks crisp, bright highs and low bass punch, which would not be so much of a problem were it not for the excellent musical contributions of Danny Elfman. With some fantastic musical creations to his credit (such as in Batman, Beetlejuice, The Simpsons, Darkman, and Mars Attacks!), Danny Elfman creates for Back to School a light-hearted, catchy musical score that brilliantly accentuates the comedic atmosphere. Furthermore, his cameo appearance with his band "Oingo Boingo" provides just the right pop flavor for Thornton Melon's over-the-top party. I only wish that the sound could do Elfman's work full justice.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The non-anamorphic video transfer (aside from one glaring disaster noted below) is inconsistent. Several scenes (generally lower-lit night settings) are nearly stunning, with well-saturated colors, decent sharpness, and the absence of dirt and film defects. Regrettably, these good portions are sandwiched between longer stretches of poorer quality. For the rest of the movie, the softness goes up a tad, colors are a little paler, but most noticeable is the abundance of dirt and film defects and the shimmering from digital enhancement that rears its ugly head. The shimmer is worst during the final dive scene with Rodney Dangerfield—check out the railing on the dive towers. Ick!
During the opening credits, my jaw dropped when some of the opening credits were cut off by a stunningly poor matte. Comparison between the letterbox and full frame sides (and a little research) indicates that Back to School is an open-matte transfer, and that someone (for an old laserdisc transfer, I'd wager) horribly botched the matte process. For shame, MGM!
The extras are practically non-existent, with only a theatrical trailer and a two-page color insert with a smattering of production notes. This is rather a sorry state of affairs coming from MGM, famous for its stuffed to the gills James Bond discs. Sadly, this Back to School disc fits a growing pattern for MGM, where catalog titles are given indifferent video transfers and scant extra content (even favorites like A Fish Called Wanda).
A good beer & pretzels comedy for a guy's night at the home theater, or those looking for a shot of '80s nostalgia, Back to School deserved better than this disc. Sadly, I wouldn't expect a SE for this catalog title any time soon. If you've never seen it, do rent it, but avoid a purchase ($25 retail) unless you are a die-hard fan of Rodney Dangerfield or the film (and it hurts me to say that!)
The film is acquitted (great party, Mr. Melon!), but MGM is sentenced to 30 days in jail with only bread and water for cruelty to catalog titles.
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• Theatrical Trailer
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