Sunday 29 April 2012

Obscurity Files - Back to School

In this 1986 classic comedy, Caddyshack's Rodney Dangerfield, forever in search of finding some respect, heads to college to find some class and spend some time with his estranged son. Ooh, but there's a crusty old professor who objects to Dangerfield's presence on campus. Who will come out on top, I wonder?

Rodney Dangerfield stars as Thornton Melon, the wisecracking owner of a chain of clothing stores that caters for the more portly of gentlemen. After separating from his bitchy cheating trophy wife, Melon decides to reconnect with his son by visiting him at college. Disappointed that his son is considering quitting, he decides to enrol in some classes and graduate alongside him.

That's the basic outline of Back to School, a film that by roping in the writing talents of Caddyshack co-scribe Harold Ramis as well as Rodney himself, knows when to let Dangerfield abandon all shreds of a plot and just let him riff. As a vehicle for Dangerfield's schtick, it may be a better showcase for him than Caddyshack, capitalising on his unexpected appeal by making a movie that caters towards his new found popularity with the youngsters. He's full of brilliant one-liners that only Dangerfield knows how to deliver without sounding like the most obnoxious man in the world.

As Melon's son Jason we have Keith Gordon, an awkward screen presence at best, and with his slight build and inability to crack a joke, unlikely casting as the spawn of Dangerfield. Through his various on screen appearances in the 80's, Gordon was able to manoeuvre his way into a directorial career, most notably the newly re-released 90's war drama A Midnight Clear and The Singing Detective, the film which re-teamed him with his Back to School co-star, the clearly destined to be a megastar, Robert Downey Jr.

Apart from the appearance of the ever reliable Dangerfield, this early role for Robert Downey Jr is the biggest reason to seek out Back to School, showing him in his supporting role period before he got his teeth straightened and stopped doing crazy hairstyles that were only acceptable in the 80's. Playing the rebellious outsider with his guyliner and over gelled hair, this ranks alongside his appearance in Weird Science as one of those double take 'oh my god, it IS him' kind of roles.

To quote Homer Simpson, "somebody's sucked all the life out of these kids, and unless TV has lied to me, it was a crusty, bitter old dean!". It turns out that's a half truth, as Ned Beatty's 'Dean Martin' is quite open to Melon's presence as long as his cheque book is open. Instead it's the snooty British professor who takes an instant dislike to Melon on campus, partly because he's bought his way onto his business course and partly because Melon's trying to steal his girlfriend. Rubbing up authority figures the wrong way and sticking it to 'the man', it's perhaps too easy to call this 'Caddyshack goes to College', but y'know, that's kind of what it is.

The term 'big man on campus' could have been invented for Dangerfield's character, strutting around offering free pens to the students  walking into bookstores yelling "Hey everyone! Shakespeare's on me!" When he's set an English assignment on the writer Kurt Vonnegut, Thornton hires the real Vonnegut (in an unexpected cameo) to do the work for him. There's a surprising but welcome counter culture thread running through the film, with wild man stand-up (and protege of Dangerfield) Sam Kinison making an appearance too.

Continuing the overwhelming feeling that this film should be more highly regarded, the music in the film came courtesy of super composer Danny Elfman, just one year after he'd started his partnership with Tim Burton on Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Elfman, along with his new-wave band Oingo Boingo, even has a cameo at the obligatory house party scene. His score is delightfully joyous, and like all of the best Elfman's music, still gets used in adverts and trailers to this day.

It's surprising to learn that this comes from the same director as Police Academy: Mission to Moscow (the undisputed worst of the franchise), as Back to School could well be the ultimate college comedy. It's got everything you'd hope for. Romance, rebellion, booze, bad haircuts... and in the film's climactic (and slightly shoe horned in) sports triumph, an overweight 60 year old in a bathing suit, jumping off a diving board. Correction, three diving boards. If anyone knows how to get a crowd cheering for him, it's Rodney Dangerfield.

Save from obscurity? YES

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