Back to School [DVD]
Director : Alan Metter
Screenplay : Steven Kampmann & Will Porter and Peter Torokvei & Harold Ramis (story by Rodney Dangerfield & Greg Fields & Dennis Snee)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1986
Stars : Rodney Dangerfield (Thornton Melon), Sally Kellerman (Dr. Diane Turner), Burt Young (Lou), Keith Gordon (Jason Melon), Robert Downey Jr. (Derek), Paxton Whitehead (Dr. Phillip Barbay), Terry Farrell (Valerie Desmond), M. Emmet Walsh (Coach Turnbull), Adrienne Barbeau (Vanessa), William Zabka (Chas), Ned Beatty (Dean Martin), Severn Darden (Dr. Borozini), Sam Kinison (Professor Terguson)
In Back to School, comedian Rodney Dangerfield essentially plays a softer variation on the role of Al Czervik, the character that made him famous in Caddyshack (1980). In both roles he plays an extremely wealthy character who refuses to play by the rules of the monetarily well-endowed. Instead of being refined and respectable, two things money should be able to buy anyone, he is loud and crass and constantly speaks his mind. Near the beginning of Back to School, Dangerfield ruins a “classy” poolside party thrown by his sneering second wife (Adrienne Barbeau) by amassing the hors d'oeuvres into a submarine sandwich, carrying his own can of beer in his pocket, and complimenting one of his wife's friends by telling her that her green dress lacks only side pockets to complete its similarity to a pool table.
Of course, that's the way the best Dangerfield characters think and act, which may be why they get no respect. In Back to School, Dangerfield is Thornton Melon, an uneducated self-made businessman who earned his millions by founding a successful chain of stores for the larger individual whose name--“Tall & Fat”--is just like Thornton himself in the way it dispenses with formalities and polite euphemisms and simply calls it like it is. Thornton's son, Jason (Keith Gordon), is a college freshman at the fictional Great Lakes University who can't seem to cut it: he isn't accepted into a fraternity, he's pulling all C's, and he didn't make the university dive team. To encourage his son to stay in school, Thornton decides to join him as a freshman, a feat he pulls off by (what else?) donating an academic building, an offer the amusingly named Dean Martin (Ned Beatty) can't resist.
Thus, Back to School is essentially a fish-out-of-water comedy in which Thornton the millionaire rube tries to adapt to college life (he's described at one point as “the world's oldest freshman and the walking epitome of the decline of modern education”). He seems to do fine when it comes to partying (one drunken reveler declares the party Thornton throws in his dorm room to be the greatest thing that has ever happened to him), but class schedules and studying don't exactly fit his lifestyle. He also falls in love with his passionate English professor (Sally Kellerman), who is unfortunately dating Dr. Philip Barbay (Paxton Whitehead), the stuffy business professor who becomes Thornton's nemesis both intellectually and romantically.
Whenever Dangerfield is on-screen, Back to School works in the style of a classic Marx Brothers comedy (one of their best being 1932's Horse Feathers, which is set on a college campus). He is also aided by a colorful supporting cast, including the indomitable comedian Sam Kinison as a raging rightwing history professor and Robert Downey Jr. as Jason's Marxist-spouting, antisocial misfit roommate. The film is, like many comedies, a celebration of social outsiders and their ability to kick the establishment where it hurts.
Unfortunately, whenever Dangerfield and the other anarchists are absent and the focus of the film falls on Jason, it doesn't work so well, even though Jason is a fully rounded character and Keith Gordon makes him believably frustrated with both his own inability to fit in and the curse of living in the shadow of his well-meaning, but sometimes overbearing father. It doesn't help that Jason's romantic subplot involves a generic beauty named Valerie Desmond, who is played by Terry Farrell as a vacantly smiling airhead--cute, but completely dull as a love interest. Jason must vie for her nondescript affections by competing with a pompous dive-team stud in a feathered mullet played by William Zabka, who had already perfected the art of being the go-to jerk after playing them so well in The Karate Kid (1984) and Just One of the Guys (1985).
Luckily, Dangerfield dominates most the film, happily upending everything around him. There is a logic to Thornton Melon that feels organic and lived-in, possibly because he's so close to the various characters Dangerfield had been honing on stage and screen since the 1960s. By the mid-1980s, Dangerfield had perfected his “I get no respect” persona, with the bulging eyes, tossed-off one-liners, and sad-sack posture that he seems to be constantly attempting to correct by tugging at his tie (in real life he battled depression, and that deep-seated war with his own emotions gives even his most generic comedy an edge). Given his success, Thornton Melon is no loser except in the eyes of prats like Dr. Barbay, but that's exactly the point: It's people like him who run the world, which is precisely why Dangerfield feels they must be undercut at every turn.
|Back to School Extracurricular Edition DVD|
|Distributor||MGM / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||August 14, 2007|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Aside from the atrocious cover art, this new “Extra-Curricular Edition” of Back to School is a welcome improvement over the previously available 2003 DVD, which was nonanamorphic and had several issues with the transfer (including artifacting and badly placed mattes). The new anamorphic widescreen transfer has the film looking as good as can be expected. As a fairly inexpensive mid-'80s comedy, Back to School doesn't have a whole lot going for it visually. Colors are a bit drab and the image is slightly soft, but this is to be expected from a film of this sort. The new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is crisp and clean, which gives Rodney Dangerfield's numerous one-liners plenty of kick and also opens up Danny Elfman's giddy musical score, as well as his appearance with Oingo Boingo at the dorm party.|
|>“School Daze: The Making of Back to School” (17 min.) is a highly entertaining retrospective featurette that assembles an impressive array of participants for interviews, including director Alan Metter, cosceenwriter Harold Ramis, producer Chuck Russell, production designer David L. Snyder, and actors Sally Kellerman, Keith Gordon, William Zabka, and Burt Young. You learn quite a bit about the production and the film's origins, including the original idea that Dangerfield's character was broke and had to work as a janitor when he went back to school. “Dissecting the Triple Lindy” is a six-minute look at the evolution of Dangerfield's climactic dive, as well as how they used prosthetics to make a professional diver look like the portly comic. “Paying Respect: Remembering Rodney Dangerfield” is a 10-minute featurette in which those who worked with him on Back to School extol the late comic's virtues, comparing him to such artists as Michelangelo and Picasso, although there is also frank reminiscences about his battles with depression and substance abuse. The featurette also includes video footage of his stand-up act and interviews with Easy Money costar Jeffrey Jones and wife Joan Dangerfield. By contrast, the “In Memoriam” featurette for writer Kurt Vonnegut, who shows up for a brief, but memorable cameo in the film, is barely a minute long. “From Rocky to Rodney” and “Rodney: A Driving Force” are both circa-1986 press featurettes running a few minutes each. Finally, there is a photo gallery with 18 stills and publicity shots, an original theatrical trailer, and three TV spots.|
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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