' ' Cinema Romantico: Back To School (Flashback To The 80's, Part 1)

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Back To School (Flashback To The 80's, Part 1)

Rodney Dangerfield was a little like Will Ferrell, wasn't he? You hired him and you knew pretty much straight away what you were getting. The aw-shucks delivery. The halting gait. The incessant one liners. Goodness, the incessant one liners. The story for "Back To School" is credited to three people (including Dangerfield) and the screenplay is credited to four writers but most every line spoken by anyone feels like a set-up for a Dangerfield one-liner. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Consider the initial scene with Dangerfield, playing Thornton Melon, a self-made millionaire of big and tall clothing, filming a commercial for his business, a commercial which consists entirely of one-liners. It establishes the character and lets him be who he is. Unfortunately, despite his success in business Thornton's second wife (80's vixen Adrienne Barbeau) is up to no good and, thus, in the face of divorce he takes his limousine and lights out for Grand Lakes College where his son Jason (Keith Gordon) is in a fraternity and on the diving team. Well....not quite. It seems Jason was lying about that. He is not in a frat and he is the towel boy for the diving team. He pines for lovely Valerie (Terry Farrell) but she is with his ne'er-do-well diving rival Chas (William Zabka, the go-to 80's movie bully). He only has one friend, Derek Lutz, a Billy Idol-channeling Robert Downey Jr.

Jason is thinking about dropping out but Thornton, despite not having received a university diploma himself, councils that if someone doesn't attend and finish college they're nothin'. (This nugget of wisdom apparently means people like, say, Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga, Lucinda Williams, Clint Eastwood, and Hollywood's current best screenwriter Tony Gilroy are nothin' but, you know, never mind.) Jason points out his dad never finished college at which point Thornton decides to enroll and bam! We've got our title!

Thornton will bribe Ned Beatty's Dean Martin (ha! ha!) to get in and butt heads with the smarmy professor Philip Barbay (Paxton Whithead, whose own name is better than his character's) who is "going with" English Professor Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman) who in no time will blossom into Thornton's love interest and in the penultimate scene he is called upon to perform an "impossible" dive called The Triple Lindy that all us pre-teens in the 80's acted out using couch cushions afterwards. He will teach his son to be a man and his son will teach him to grow up and take responsibility for himself. In fact, the relationship here between Thornton and Jason, amidst some suspect material, is actually quite graceful. The son is not trying to act out against his father and the father is not trying to browbeat his son. They clearly just want the best for one another.

Keith Gordon never did much acting after "Back To School", turning instead to directing which he has only done sporadically, though with honorable intentions - "A Midnight Clear" (1992), "The Singing Detective" (2003, re-teaming him years later with Downey Jr.) and "Waking The Dead" (2000), an underseen Billy Crudup/Jennifer Connelly ghost story that is flawed but genuine. I liked Gordon in this. He has a certain loopy charm and was not lifted from the same cookie cutter as so many other 80's actors. In fact, as the love interest Farrell is taller than Gordon but rather than resort to having Gordon stand on a box - a la Tom Cruise & Kelly McGillis in "Top Gun" - they just let the height discrepancy be. Refreshing.

The best moment in the film belongs to Sam Kinison as an unhinged history professor and the film's most curious moment is a "Twist and Shout" sing-along which I was ready to decry as a "Ferris Bueller" rip-off until I realized that, according to IMDB, "Back To School" was officially released a whole 2 days after "Ferris Bueller". Were "Twist and Shout" sing-alongs all the rage back in the 80's and I have forgotten?

Of course the critical question is what modern day viewers might glean from 1986's #6 film at the box office? Is there any unique insight into this long ago decade? Consider, perhaps, the sequence in which Thornton wants the colossal university hall hosting class sign-ups cleared so he can get the courses he wants when he wants and so his driver (Burt Young, not looking all that different from his recent "Rocky Balboa" appearance) retreats to the limo and holds aloft a sign with the name of the most famous celebrity possible to draw every student away from the sign-up and easily succeeds. The celebrity's name? Bruce Springsteen. That's right, kids, there once was a time when The Boss could send every 18-22 year old in a 50 mile radius into a frenzy. No, really, I'm not lying. He could. I said, he could, damn it! Why don't you believe me?! God, I'm old.

1 comment:

bowiechaser said...

Love, LOOOOVE "Back to School"
- great commentary on it. :D