The film that launched a million Rodney Dangerfield impersonations, BACK TO SCHOOL is something of a rare thing: An aptly-rated movie. I talk all the time about underrated movies, and have occasionally even talked about overrated movies (I prefer to err on the side of being overly positive), but it’s not as often that a movie’s public estimation and its actual value are approximately in balance. In the realm of comedies of a certain vintage which are worshipped by guys and gals of my generation, BACK TO SCHOOL is beloved, but not as much as CADDYSHACK, which in turn is not quite as beloved as, say, ANIMAL HOUSE or GHOSTBUSTERS. (This is all very unscientific, by the way.)
BACK TO SCHOOL is very effective in its most important and noble aim, which is to give us all what we wanted after CADDYSHACK: More Rodney Dangerfield. In BACK TO SCHOOL, Rodney is essentially playing the same character he played in CADDYSHACK, the blue-collar, nouveau-riche millionaire without a care. This time around, the Rodney Dangerfield character goes by the name Thornton Mellon, but who are we kidding? It’s Rodney. The minimal plot involves Rodney Dangerfield going back to college. That’s it. That’s what you need to know. Along the way, he hits on one of his professors (Sally Kellerman) and brings along his bodyguard/chaffeur (Burt Young, a year after Rocky gave him a robot).
The most interesting, and at the same time, problematic, element of BACK TO SCHOOL is the fact that Thornton Melon has a college-age son, Jason. It’s interesting because the tension between the devil-may-care father and the serious son gives the movie the only real conflict it has — outside of a typically punch-worthy, dickhead-bully performance from the ever-reliable 1980s enemy, Billy Zabka — but it’s problematic because the kid is a total wet-blanket. It’s not really the fault of the actor, Keith Gordon, who has been more likable in other movies (he was the lead in Carpenter’s CHRISTINE!).
I think it’s a conceptual issue. Look, IMDb credits eight different people with the story, one of them being Harold Ramis, one of my creative heroes. I’m not saying I know more than eight people, particularly not Harold Ramis (I don’t), but I do know, as someone who grew up watching this movie over and over, that I don’t quite love it as much as I do some of the other movies I grew up watching over and over. I think the reason is because, basically, we watch these movies so we can watch our favorite comedians behave badly. We like watching Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy pissing off the dickheads and flirting with the ladies. We want to see Rodney Dangerfield throwing wild jacuzzi parties with bikini models in his dorm room. Imagine if John Belushi was rampaging through ANIMAL HOUSE (an earlier movie co-written by Harold Ramis, for the record) and Boon and Otter kept whining at him the entire time. That’s Marmalard’s job, see? Poor Keith Gordon has a thankless job in BACK TO SCHOOL, he’s the guy who essentially keeps telling Rodney to turn the music down and to stop farting. And none of us kids want to see that, even if, morally speaking, we know we’re probably supposed to.
So it’s not a comedy that hits every single minute. But the stuff that lands is a ton of fun, and there’s a lot of peripheral weirdness going on all over the place. For one thing, Rodney Dangerfield and Sally Kellerman have to be one of the most mismatched romantic couplings in cinema history. It’s hard to even rationally explain. But hey, there’s Robert Downey Jr. as Jason’s roommate! Is he playing one of the first gay sidekicks in teen-movie history? Could be! I mean, he’s not as out there as Evil Ed from FRIGHT NIGHT, but I think he’s doing his typical Downey spicing-up-an-otherwise-boring part.
And now there’s RDJ in a scene with Danny Elfman and his band Oingo Boingo, playing as the house band in the aforementioned dorm party, before Tim Burton drafted Elfman into becoming a film composer!
There’s doomed 1980s stand-up phenomenon Sam Kinison as one of Rodney’s professors! (What a weird cameo, still can’t tell if I’m laughing at or laughing with, but one of the best ever.)
Speaking of weird cameos, there’s Kurt Vonnegut, his actual self! (I guarantee that’s a Harold Ramis request.)
And then there’s M. Emmet Walsh, Adrienne Barbeau, Robert Picardo, and Ned Beatty! Actually, I don’t remember any of them being in this movie but this is another thing IMDb told me.
Also, IMDb said that the actor who plays Phillip, Rodney’s stuck-up rival for Sally Kellerman’s affections, is named Paxton Whitehead, which is such a better name for a stuck-up rival for Sally Kellerman’s affections. IMDb is so fun sometimes.
But back to the main point: BACK TO SCHOOL isn’t the most consistently flawless of 1980s comedies, but more than any other genre, comedy can get away with imperfections. Is it funny? Can I quote the living hell out of the thing? Is it a good time to watch with a group? All the answers to those questions are yesses. Now when’s the next screening?
BACK TO SCHOOL is playing tonight at 9:30pm at 92Y Tribeca as part of their very promising and appropriately-named Back To School series. BACK TO SCHOOL will be the second part of a double-feature with THREE O’CLOCK HIGH, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Find out if I have any class (I don’t) on Twitter: @jonnyabomb