Summer School

On paper, Summer School would seem to hold dismal promise; it’s the one about the wacky schoolteacher who has to guide his equally wacky students through a few weeks of summer makeup study, or he will lose his job and they will flunk out. He’s a gym teacher, they’re backward in their native language. Many wacky things ensue.

It sounds bad, but Summer School makes more out of this sow’s ear than you’d expect. On its own low-key terms, this is a likable and amusing movie. It doesn’t expose any of the great truths of our time, but then the great truths of this particular time may be better left unexposed.

Mark Harmon, late of Coors beer commercials and Moonlighting guest shots, plays the gym teacher at a high school located somewhere near Malibu. He’d much rather be surfing, but he inherits the summer teaching gig, even though his own reading skill are not exactly razor-sharp. (On his first day of summer session, one of his students greets him with, “Hey, Mr. Shoop – you taking this class too?”) Kirstie Alley plays the teacher next door and inevitable love interest; it’s a role that could have been obligatory, except for Alley’s droll way with a put-down.

Harmon takes his students through some plausibility-stretching adventures both in and out of the classroom. Most of these are fairly painless, if perfunctory.

Usually the worst part about sitting through movies such as this is that the young actors are always so excruciating. Surprise, again. Most of these kids are quite all right, some downright funny.

In particular, Dean Cameron and Gary Riley score some laughs as loudmouth nerds who consider The Texas Chainsaw Massacre the apogee of Western civilization. They work at a one-hour photo shop, and, as we’ve always suspected about those places, spend most of their time ogling strangers’ pictures.

Summer School was directed by Carl Reiner, from a script by Jeff Franklin. Reiner is a funny man, although his directorial style has usually been anonymous. Here he pleasantly stresses the casualness of it all, and he has a healthy way of tossing off little gags.

Reiner seems to respond to the main character, a non-ambitious goofball who lolls on the beach and eats peanut butter and jelly out of the jar. Harmon, who always appears to be slightly distracted, isn’t called on to be anything but likable and easygoing. But he does both of those things perfectly well, and the movie keys its tone from his performance.

First published in The Herald, July 23, 1987

Also in the cast: Courtney Thorne-Smith and Shawnee Smith. Nuff sed. Reiner’s next film was Bert Rigby, You’re a Fool, a curious fizzle tooled for the talents of the Tony-winning British actor Robert Lindsay. Mark Harmon’s career as gone on … and on … and on ….

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