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Review: Back to School (1986)

Back to School (1986)

Directed by: Alan Metter

Premise: A successful businessman (Rodney Dangerfield) decides to enroll in college in order to help his son.

What Works: Back to School is a fun movie that stands out primarily because of its lead actor. Rodney Dangerfield was an accomplished standup comedian whose appeal was based on his ability to administer one-liners and make it seem effortless. That kind of comedic form does not necessarily translate into good acting and that may be part of the reason why Dangerfield’s list of acting credits is fairly short. But in Back to School Dangerfield does a very good job because the film makes his comic style work for the movie. His one-liners are never forced and often work in ways that build the character and contribute to the scene while delivering the laughs. Aside from his role in Caddyshack, Rodney Dangerfield’s performance in Back to School is some of his best work as an actor. Back to School is also appealing because it features a number of notable actors and comics from the 1980s such as Burt Young, Ned Beatty, and Sam Kinison and for viewers of a certain age Back to School possesses a little nostalgic value. This film also features a few now-prominent actors in supporting roles. Among them is Robert Downey, Jr. and it is amusing to see Downey in the same frame as Dangerfield; Downey’s performances in later movies like Natural Born Killers, Iron Man, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang show a definite influence from Dangerfield’s comic style. Back to School is also appealing as a college movie. Collegiate comedies are often problematic for many reasons but more than anything their portrayal of college life bears little or no resemblance to the actual experience of higher education. Hollywood’s presentation of college life often seems like it was made by people who never actually attended a university and instead learned everything about higher education from watching Animal House. Back to School is very much part of this same cinematic trend but the movie is aware of its own ridiculousness and in fact pokes fun at its main character’s misunderstanding of college. Along with Dangerfield’s accessible comic style and the film’s central father-son relationship, this self-awareness makes the movie charming.

What Doesn’t: Back to School isn’t without its faults. The picture is a vehicle for Rodney Dangerfield to do his shtick and as a result the son of Dangerfield’s character, played by Keith Gordon, gets pushed into the background. There just isn’t much for him to do and the film misses an obvious point: no one would want their parents with them at college. The story does build some tension between them toward the end of the film but the bulk of the picture ignores Gordon’s character when it ought to make him the lead protagonist rather than reduce him to the straight man against Dangerfield’s comedy. Back to School is also very much a comedy of the 1980s. Comedies of this era, especially the raunchier pictures, have not aged well. This is not a sex comedy but Back to School does feature the sexism that was popular in comedies of this period. It is nowhere near as ugly as other films like Porky’s or Animal House but it is there and a quarter century after its original release these scenes aren’t nearly as funny.

DVD extras: The “Extra Curricular Edition” includes featurettes, image galleries, and trailers.

Bottom Line: Despite the ways in which it has aged, Back to School is still an appealing comedy. It may not be a great movie but it is a good one. Back to School is one of the better send ups of college to be found and it is worth revisiting for the comedy of Rodney Dangerfield.

Episode: #403 (September 2, 2012)