Rodney Dangerfield earns a comedy degree in BACK TO SCHOOL
“Why don’t you call me sometime when you have no class?”
There was something about the decadent 80s and comedy films that went together perfectly. One of my favorites that I saw at the movies in 1986 was BACK TO SCHOOL. Rodney Dangerfield, the late great legendary comedian stars as Thornton Melon, the wealthy president of TALL & FAT, a store chain that makes clothes for people on the hefty side. We learn that Thornton earned his success the hard way, on the mean streets of New York City and never even graduated college to do it. Thornton’s best friend is Lou (Burt Young) a tough but nice guy who acts as his bodyguard/chauffer. During a big party at his beautiful home, Thornton discovers his snooty second wife Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau) cheating on him with a waiter and it ends their marriage. This incident makes Thornton realize he needs to do something to replenish his spirit and start over. So he decides on a whim to go to college and get a degree. This instantly complicates the life of his son Jason (Keith Gordon) who is attending the same school and isn’t really digging it. He only has one real friend in Derek Lutz (Robert Downey Jr) an eccentric punk misfit who is more interested in getting into trouble than studying. As soon as Thornton arrives on campus the place goes wild. He becomes an instant celebrity and everyone wants to be his friend, including the affable Dean Martin (Ned Beatty), haha you get the joke. While taking his classes, Thornton becomes smitten with one of his teachers, Diane (Sally Kellerman) a blonde headed intellectual that speaks to his…artistic side. With Thornton’s cash, he carries plenty of influence and secretly gets Jason a spot on the diving team alongside Chaz Osbourne (William Zabka) a major jerk. Zabka made his name playing these kinds of characters in 80s movies (The Karate Kid, Just One of the Guys etc) and he was exceptional at it. Jason does get lucky on his own when he falls in love with the tall brunette babe Valerie (Terry Farrell) who seems charmed by his kindhearted personality. Meanwhile, Thornton seems to cast a magic spell over everyone at the school and energizes it with his presence but it’s not long until his personal flaws show through. Instead of using his mind, he decides to pay people to do his homework and it causes even more of a problem with Jason who considers his father a big weight around his neck even though his heart is in the right place. After seeing the error of his ways, Thornton must then rise to the occasion and do his best to make the grade. One of the film’s most memorable scenes features a stand up comic that Rodney was a fan of at the time, his name: SAM KINISON. He plays a history professor named Mr. Turgeson) that does his furious rage schtick on a poor student (“OHHH OHHHHH!!”). It is so hilarious and really made an impression on me when I was 12, “Who the hell is this insane guy?” I thought. The movie is chock full of laughs like that and is one classic Rodney zinger after another. If you happen to love 80s New Wave music, there’s also a really cool cameo from the band OINGO BOINGO who sing “Dead Man’s Party” during one of Thornton’s big college dorm blowouts. Whenever I think of the 80s, I’m always reminded of a time when things were bright, colorful and fun. It really was an outrageously wild decade, and comedies like BACK TO SCHOOL reflected that in the best way.