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Our review of Back To School, published April 12th, 2000, is also available.
Giving academia a lesson in laughter!
"Lay off Vanessa. She gives great headache."
Facts of the Case
Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield, Caddyshack) never graduated from high school, but that didn't stop him from becoming one of America's most successful entrepreneurs. Thornton is the well-to-do founder of Tall & Fat, a business that designs clothing for plus-sized individuals. Despite his own success story, Thornton is determined that his son Jason (Keith Gordon, Christine) will have a proper college education. Alas, Jason is struggling with his studies and is contemplating quitting school in the midst of his freshman year. Resolved to prevent this, Thornton decides to give his son moral support by enrolling as a student at the university Jason attends. Much chaos ensues.
Though Rodney Dangerfield was one of the most popular, distinctive comics of his day, his acting career never really managed to hit the entertaining heights of his best stand-up routines. Most of the titles on Dangerfield's resume are forgettable appearances in disposable comedies (Easy Money, The Godson, Meet Wally Sparks, Ladybugs, The Fourth Tenor), but there are a few fleeting highlights: Dangerfield's wild performance in Caddyshack, his oddball turn in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, and the genial comedy Back to School.
If Back to School has any noteworthy cinematic merit, it's as the most successful attempt at translating Dangerfield's unique comedic style to a traditional silver screen comedy. The fundamental problem with almost all of Dangerfield's films is that they rarely feel like actual movies, just a series of silly scenes designed for the sole purpose of setting up the comic's trademark punch lines. That's also something Back to School struggles with, but the film manages to deliver just enough entertainment to qualify as an enjoyable bit of fluff.
Observe the early scenes of tension between Thorton and his nagging wife Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau, Escape From New York). She's not playing a real character with real emotions; she's just her husband's humorless straight man. Consider the following exchange:
Vanessa: "I have absolutely nothing to wear."
Much of the dialogue in the film follows this pattern, with the overqualified supporting players (including a kindly M. Emmett Walsh, a grubby Ned Beatty, a spaced-out Burt Young and a feverishly energetic young Robert Downey, Jr.) lining up to assist Dangerfield's onslaught of comic slam-dunks. Thankfully, Dangerfield brings enough enthusiasm and playful vigor to the role to make it work. After a while, there's something curiously infectious about seeing the comic trembling in the background as if he can't wait to rush in with his next tasty put-down or goofy pun.
Back to School arrives on Blu-ray sporting a passable 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. While the level of detail is respectable for a film made twenty-five years ago, the level of grain seems excessive at times (the handful of nighttime sequences are particularly noisy). There's also some black crush during the darker scenes. Basically, this is yet another MGM catalogue title that retains its natural filmic look yet which little restoration work has been put into. Audio is satisfactory, with clean dialogue blending nicely with Danny Elfman's bouncy score (Elfman and the rest of Oingo Boingo actually make a fun appearance in the film, too—interestingly, this scene is the most impressive from an audio standpoint). Extras are limited to a handful of featurettes recycled from the previous DVD release: "School Daze: The Making of Back to School" (17 minutes), "Dissecting the Triple Lindy" (6 minutes), "Remembering Rodney Dangerfield" (10 minutes), "Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: In Memoriam" (1 minute), "News Wrap: From Rocky to Rodney" (3 minutes) and "Sports Wrap: Rodney: A Diving Force" (2 minutes). You also get a theatrical and TV trailer. Sadly, there is no disc menu included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
To enjoy Back to School, you're going to have to forgive an awful lot of flaws. Chief among these is the incredible dull story of Jason Mellon, played by Keith Gordon as a young man with the charisma of a fence post. Jason's nemesis is a tool named Chas (William Zabka, The Karate Kid), because no blond-haired college student named Chas will ever be a nice guy. The film grinds to a halt every time it indulges the dull tale of Jason's personal crisis.
Additionally, the manner in which the romance is handled in the film makes absolutely no sense. Here's how it goes down…
• Thornton asks Diane out on a date, and she accepts. At the conclusion of the date, Thorton and Diane have sex. Phillip is aware of everything that has gone down between the two.
• Diane then continues dating Phillip as if nothing has happened, treating her incident with Thornton as nothing more than an enjoyable diversion.
• Diane goes to visit Thornton and discovers him in a hot tub with four young woman ("Now that's what I call marine biology!"). She gets angry and storms out, as if she's been cheated on.
• Diane gets upset at Thornton for lying about his studies.
• Diane is next seen cheerfully cuddling up to Thornton and helping him sell an elaborate lie about his studies.
I guess in the midst of working in all of those one-liners, the screenwriters (including Harold Ramis) forgot about basic things like story coherence.
While it's not a cinematic classic, Dangerfield fans will be hard-pressed to find a better big-screen representation of the comic's unique voice than Back to School. MGM's Blu-ray release isn't anything spectacular, but it gets the job done.
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