**½/**** Image D+ Sound B-
starring Rodney Dangerfield, Sally Kellerman, Burt Young, Keith Gordon
screenplay by Steven Kampmann & Will Porter and Peter Torokvei & Harold Ramis
directed by Alan Metter
by Walter Chaw Rodney Dangerfield, alas, still gets no respect. Recently the comic was denied membership to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, allegedly on the basis of his profane turn as an abusive father in Natural Born Killers. (Gee, I thought demonstrating range and talent would be two guarantees of an actor's admittance into the Oscar-voting body.) The poor showings for his last two screen outings, Ladybugs and Meet Wally Sparks, have perhaps permanently sealed Dangerfield's fate as a Vegas stand-up.
Back to School, which reaffirms Dangerfield's rueful fixation with material wealth after the nominally edgier Easy Money (not to mention Caddyshack), remains a fine showcase for the charms of the erstwhile "Rappin' Rodney." Unfortunately, fourteen years after its release, the whole affair's gone a bit stale. Dangerfield stars as Thornton Melon, a high-school dropout who made the big-time by launching a chain of clothing stores for the overweight. Thornton's true pride and joy is not his business but rather his son, Jason (Keith Gordon, now a director), a college freshman struggling to fit in on campus. Fresh from another failed marriage, Thornton decides to lend Jason his some moral support by enrolling in classes alongside him, a gesture that also entails renovating Jason's dorm room (to furnish it with couches, a big-screen TV, and a hot tub) and replacing his used textbooks with the latest editions. But the tycoon quickly becomes a party animal and loses interest in his studies. A lack of self-discipline is why he never continued his education in the first place.
A fetching teacher (Sally Kellerman) encourages Thornton to try harder instead of hiring people (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and NASA officials among them!) to do his homework. Soon, he has stolen her affections from crusty economics professor Phillip Barbay (Paxton Whitehead, whose real name conjures a much stronger mental picture of a snivelling, overprivileged killjoy), leading the doctor to launch a campaign for Thornton's expulsion. Will our hero prove his intellectual worth at an oral exam? Will he then save the day at a diving meet by performing the fabled Triple Lindy?
It's all very sweet and well-intentioned, and earnest supporting performances bring out the warmest in the PEZ dispenser of punchlines Dangerfield, but Back to School's time-depleted (maturity-depleted?) laugh quotient renders the film something closer to a relic than a classic. Although the bug-eyed funnyman undeniably had some credibility at the cinema for a fleeting moment in 1986, the smash success of Back to School may have actually hurt his career, as future pleas for respect rang hollow. His schadenfreude appeal, after all, is rooted in his desire for approval; that he waited years to make another movie also contributed to the demise of his box-office clout.
The Eighties were a largely unironic time for comedy. (I recall wearing out my Weird Al records and indulging in infinite teen-party pics.) Of all the clown princes from that era, my favourite was the perennial loser Dangerfield, whose shtick was to spit out a succession of self-defeating one-liners with such machine-gun intensity that the jokes themselves became irrelevant to the sum total of the onslaught: you felt as if you'd just heard a lifetime of anguish in two minutes and laughed at the prospect. These pitiable verbal assaults made him more than just a portlier, crasser Henny Youngman, though; the famous Youngman quip "Take my wife, please," became, in Dangerfield's hands, "During sex my girlfriend always wants to talk to me. Just the other night she called me from a hotel." He was merciless. And that's probably why he's not hip today, because the trend in popular comedians has swung back to pointing their powers of critical perception at everything but the mirror.
I won't expend much effort discussing Back to School's DVD, because it's obvious that none was expended on its mastering. The disc appears to have originated with a grainy, low-contrast analog source dating back perhaps as far as the film's home-video debut. Black mattes have been placed on the beat-up-looking image with no regard for framing accuracy. (Widescreen bands twice obscure the opening credits.) Thankfully, a full-frame version is contained on the flipside--and how often do you hear me say that? The Dolby Surround audio is flat though not entirely lifeless: the Oingo Boingo song sounds decent. Extras include the original theatrical trailer plus a two-page booklet of Back to School trivia. Originally published: April 17, 2000.