Back to School Month: "Back to School" Review

Photo Credit: Orion Pictures Corporation

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Back to School Month: "Back to School" Review

Rating: PG-13
Length: 96 minutes
Release Date: June 13, 1986
Directed by: Alan Metter
Genre: Comedy/Romance/Sport

Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) is a millionaire who hasn't forgotten where he came from. His father was a penniless immigrant who moved to American and started making suits. A young Melon then expanded the business and made it into a cash cow that allows him to live a very pampered lifestyle despite the fact he never got a college education. He doesn't want his son Jason to be a "bum" like him without an education, so he pays for him to go to an elite university, mistakenly thinking Jason is one of the big men on campus.

It turns out Jason is actually the towel boy for the diving team, though he lies to Thornton and tells him he's actually on the team. He and his best buddy, Derek (Robert Downey Jr.), are social misfits, but they seem to be OK with that until Jason begins to crush on Valerie (Terry Farrell) who's at the top of the social heap. However, this is the least of Jason's problems because Thornton has caught wind of his son's lies and is about to confront him to find out what's really going on.

Thornton can leave his posh home without a care because his loveless marriage to wife Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau) has ended due to her philandering. His business is run like a well-oiled machine, so he doesn't have to be present there. What's a millionaire with a wayward son and too much time on his hands to do? Go visit his son and enroll in college with him, of course! Thornton soon finds himself becoming the big man on campus, while Jason continues to pine for Valerie and try to make the diving team. Things are going swimmingly until Professor Barbay (Paxton Whitehead) accuses Thornton of cheating and threatens him with expulsion. He must now prove he's actually doing his work, but is distracted by falling for the beautiful Dr. Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman). Can Thornton stay in school and win the heart of Diane, or will he depart in shame, leaving poor Jason to pick up the pieces?

There was a rash of films starring comedians in the 1980s that were meant to serve as vehicles to get these stars to the next level. Some did better than others such as Eddie Murphy's megahit "Beverly Hills Cop." "Back to School" is another fine example of this short-lived trend as it was the solo hit Dangerfield had been longing for. Sure, he was in classics like "Caddyshack," but he was hardly the lead in that film. Similarly, Murphy had carved out a career before "Beverly Hills Cop," but always had big co-stars like Dan Aykroyd in "Trading Places" or Nick Nolte in "48 Hours" to share the screen with. Murphy broke out because he finally found a movie that played to his strengths. Dangerfield also found a movie that played to his strengths, though he had to come up with the story idea himself. He gets co-credit for the story and character idea, while Harold Ramis of "Ghostbusters" fame shares screenwriting credit with three other writers.

Perhaps it took a small army of writers to get the script just right because Dangerfield is a hard guy to pin down. His act to that point had been based on portraying himself as a poor schmuck with the catchphrase "No Respect!" It isn't easy to turn that into a feature-length movie, but Ramis and his team of writers managed to do just that. They softened up Dangerfield's persona just enough to make him believable as a concerned father who would do anything for his son. He's completely believable in the roll without betraying his trademark surliness. There's a sadness beneath his eyes that goes away once he reaches the college and begins to engage with the student body. Dangerfield made several movies before his death in 2004, but "Back to School" is arguably his best work as an actor since he really did have to stretch beyond playing himself in order to do it.

The rest of the cast is well suited to their parts, with each filling their comedy archetype role to perfection. It's hard to imagine anyone else than Whitehead playing the smarmy professor who tries to take Dangerfield down. It's also impossible anyone other than Young could play the crusty Lou. Though these characters occasionally veer into stereotype territory, they're well acted and fun to watch. They also serve the primary purpose of "Back to School," which was giving Dangerfield a little respect. He actually earned quite a bit of respect for making such a fun, underrated comedy gem.

Rating: 3 out of 5