Back to School

October 5, 2012

It shouldn’t be all that difficult to think up funny situations in which to plunk Rodney Dangerfield, that tie-pulling mass of twitches (and part-time TV beer salesman). Dangerfield drags his own peculiar quality with him wherever he goes—like Groucho Marx or Bob Hope or Bill Murray, he couldn’t play a different type of character from just who he is, and we probably wouldn’t want him to.

You put him somewhere, and he’s always Dangerfield, so the locale itself shouldn’t matter all that much. Thus, the producers of Back to School had a usable concept when they decided to send Rodney to college. The idea of putting a middle-age guy in school has worked in films before; besides, it sets up the party atmosphere so important to the summer youth audience.

The disappointing thing about Back to School is that Dangerfield, while still working his shtick, doesn’t cut loose nearly enough. In fact, he seems to think he’s actually making a movie and playing a character. Oddly enough, this is much less satisfying than Rodney’s irrelevant, dislocated riffs in Caddyshack and Easy Money.

He plays Thornton Melon, the overripe millionaire owner of a chain of Big & Tall stores (he’s proudly introducing “The Hindenburg Line” for big-boned people). When he divorces his shrewish second wife (Adrienne Barbeau), he decides to visit his son (Keith Gordon, the nut from Christine) at college.

The elder Melon, it turns out, never attended college, and by some plot contrivance enrolls at his son’s school. It helps that he donates a new building to campus, which wins the heart of the school president (Ned Beatty).

This precipitates a predictable round of beer bashes, food fights, and wiseacre answers in class. The bug-eyed millionaire also sets his sights on the English prof (Sally Kellerman) who likes to read him the hot parts out of James Joyce.

His son is concerned about Dad not applying himself. Melon’s not studying, but he hires some of the boys from NASA to work on his astronomy paper. And Melon needs to prepare a piece on Kurt Vonnegut, but he hasn’t done the reading; so, Vonnegut himself—really—is summoned to the dorm room (with its custom-installed hot tub).

This joke gets tired fast, and there’s not much else to take its place (although no less than seven credited writers worked over the script). A couple of small bits click, including a cameo by that insanely brilliant comedian, Sam Kinison, who plays a history prof with his own distinct views on the subject.

But for the most part, Back to School tries to be a pretty normal comedy. Dangerfield lets fly with a few lines from his stand-up act (“The shape I’m in, you could donate my body to science fiction”), but mostly he plays it straight. And for a guy with his skewed vision of the world, that’s a big mistake.

First published in the Herald, June 18, 1986

If you’d caught Kinison before he hit big, you’d have thought he was brilliant, too. According to one source, this was the seventh-highest-grossing film of 1986, but Dangerfield really flubbed the chance for a bigscreen followup, doing an animated feature and then the tepid Ladybugs six years after this movie.