Judge Mike Rubino can't wait until he's a rich business man so that he can go back to college and party with Oingo Boingo.
"Are you fat? When you go jogging, do you leave potholes? When you make love, do you have to give directions? At the zoo, do the elephants throw you peanuts? Do you look at a menu and say 'OK!'?"
Back to School features Rodney Dangerfield playing Rodney Dangerfield if he were a rich businessman who went back to college and met Sam Kinison and Kurt Vonnegut (briefly). It's got all of the laughs of your standard Dangerfield comedy routine, with all these other people there trying to act around him.
Facts of the Case
Mr. Thornton Melon is the extremely successful founder of the "Tall and Fat" clothing store chain. He's got it all, including Rocky's cousin as a personal chauffeur and bodyguard. The one thing he doesn't have is the love of his son, Jason, who is currently thinking about dropping out of college. In order to be a good father, bond with his child, and encourage him to stay in school, Mr. Melon enrolls in Great Lakes University to study alongside Jason.
Unfortunately, Mr. Melon thinks that tactics used in the world of business will work for him at school. He enlists the help of scientists, secretaries, and even Kurt Vonnegut to help him graduate…while he parties hard. While Mr. Melon may have been trying to be a good role model for his son, it looks like Jason will get to teach him a thing or two about going to college!
And Oingo Boingo is there, too.
After Rodney Dangerfield's debut in Caddyshack in 1980, and then his starring role in Easy Money, he took college-aged moviegoers by storm with Back to School. It's easy to understand why; the movie has all the ingredients of a perfect '80s college movie: it's a fish-out-of-water story with lots of babes, rad dudes, and evil professors trying everything in their power to take the hero down. Plus it ends with a board review, which is like the Death Star attack in college comedies.
Back to School is a comedy with a familiar premise (especially if you saw Adam Sandler's early movies), and it features one of the hardest-working stand-up comedians in the business. Thornton Melon (Dangerfield) is a successful, yet uneducated, businessman who is (surprise) a bad father. In order to make it up to his son, he enrolls in the same college as his kid and tries to make it as a student. This setup lends itself to some funny moments, like when he uses his money to hire experts and scientists to do the homework for him. While the movie is filled with funny gags and neat scenes, it chugs along at a brisk and sometimes vague pace. Before you know it, he's saving the diving team and graduating with some sort of general degree. Back to School is perfectly happy trying to make you laugh instead of giving you any sort of interesting or original story.
According to the featurette, the film was written mainly by Harold Ramis, and then Rodney Dangerfield was brought in to punch it up. Unfortunately, Dangerfield's involvement is both a blessing and a curse. The movie is so much a vehicle for Dangerfield that, at times, it's as if the entire film is spinning and moving around him, while he stands on stage delivering a stand-up routine. More often than not, the script diverts a few lines just to allow him to make a weird joke (that followers of his act have surely heard before) and then return to the subject at hand. If you haven't seen his routine before, then the whole movie will seem wholly original and hilarious; Dangerfield's stand-up act is really fantastic, and so it only makes sense that it would still be funny shoved into a movie.
While Dangerfield's acting ability might be a little weak, the supporting cast is largely excellent, if also pretty hammy. Keith Gordon is believable as Mr. Melon's son, and Sally Kellerman (MASH) is perfect in the role of the caring English prof. Melon's chauffeur/bodyguard/best friend is played by Burt Young (Paulie from the Rocky series), who actually delivers some good one-liners himself as the gruff vagrant-looking sidekick. Comedian Sam Kinison also makes a hilarious appearance as Milton's shell-shocked history teacher. In fact, the only oddball in the movie seems to be Robert Downey Jr (Wonder Boys), who plays Jason Melon's roommate Derek. He plays the stock role of "the social outcast" in college, with a new hair style every day and Marx on the tip of his tongue. Downey Jr. is out of place in this movie, and feels like he should be appearing in a John Hughes film instead.
For as fast as the plot moves along, there are actually spots when the pacing tends to drag. The movie actually features one-too-many party scenes (I know, it's an '80s movie; there can never be enough party scenes). Really, they could have scrapped the "Twist and Shout" scene, which felt like a rip off of Animal House, and just kept the party with Oingo Boingo—because really, that's what everyone came to see. Once it becomes established that Milton is actually a bad student who can't adapt to the academic lifestyle, the film dwells on the fact too long. Plus, they completely abandon the idea that Milton's real-life experience in business taught him more than school could. The end of the movie picks up again, however, as Milton returns to perform his legendary "Triple Lindy," a diving maneuver so incredibly over the top that people still reference it.
Overall, the movie isn't horrible, but I don't think it lives up to the other members of the " '80s School Movie Canon." It felt pieced together from a number of other college/high school films made between Back to School and Animal House, with the added ingredient of Dangerfield's routine.
I haven't seen the previous DVD releases of this film, but the video and audio transfer seem pretty good. The film quality looks crisp, with hardly any dust or blemishes while retaining that '80s feel. The awkward diving scenes (with that strange Elfman music) look as crystal clear as they could. The sound is also very good, sporting Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and stereo, making that sweet soundtrack sound brand-new.
This special "extra-curricular edition" comes with a number of special features looking back on the film, and the folks involved. The first of which is a 17-minute featurette called "School Daze: The Making of Back to School." It's actually a very insightful little look into many aspects of the filming process, and features a lot of the actors and crew from the film. It also features Harold Ramis (Ghostbusters) pointing out that they did, in fact, just pull quotes from Dangerfield's stand-up and plug them into the script. Overall, a really good featurette. Next is a six-minute in-depth look into the "Triple Lindy." I was sort of amazed they were able to stretch this idea out into a special feature, but it was actually interesting to see how they filmed the stunt. The next featurette is "Paying Respect: Remembering Rodney Dangerfield," which does exactly what it says it'll do. It features some nice background information on Rodney's life up until the filming of the movie. The most puzzling feature is "Kurt Vonnegut: In Memoriam," which is only a minute and a half, and pays tribute to a man who was in the movie all of two seconds. It's completely pointless. Next comes two old promos for the film, "News Wrap" and "Sports Wrap," which were apparently made back during the first release of the movie. They're both pretty awkward and have questionable sound quality. Last but not least are trailers for Back to School and other movies, and an overly designed photo gallery.
This single-disc release comes in the standard DVD case with cardboard slipcover. The packaging design is actually pretty good, sporting the standard college block font and a chalkboard. The red and green color scheme is a little too much, though. On the front cover, they managed to capture Rodney with the same facial expression he makes throughout the entire movie. At least you know what you're getting yourself in to. Not a bad package.
The '80s were filled with movies about going to high school and college; you could probably blame Animal House for all of that. But then again, some true gems came out of this craze, including Ferris Beuller's Day Off, so it's definitely a sub-genre worth looking into. That said, if you are compiling a canon of classic '80s flicks, keep this on your B-list. In the eyes of many, it's a classic. In the eyes of this judge, it's just "okay."
Guilty of demanding more respect than it deserves!
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Scales of Justice
• "School Daze: The Making of Back to School"
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