"Back to School" is a cherished member of my VHS collection not only because of the late but inimitably immortal Rodney Dangerfield and his outrageous persona, but also because of its laceration of a favorite satiric target - college. "Back to School" came out in 1986 -a year after I graduated from Tufts University- and it nearly perfectly encapsulates (if slightly exaggerates) and skewers college life during the heedlessly hedonistic and materialistic '80s.
At first Thorton Melon (Rodney's character in the movie) seemingly has two altruistic motives for applying to college: 1) personal improvement, and 2) desire to help his only son Jason (Kevin Gordon) succeed, especially when Thorton discovers that Jason is not exactly the epitome of the BMOC. However, once he essentially bribes his way into college by convincing the venally avaricious Dean Martin (he, he) to let him endow the Thorton Melon school of Business Administration, high school dropout Thorton apparently has it made. One might argue that this scenario is implausible, but given universities' rapacity for more cash, I could believe they would bend the rules to let wealthy Thorton in.
Thorton then proceeds to embody every college student's wet dream - to be the perpetually fun-loving slacker who has the dough to show himself and others an endless good time and buy himself out of any trouble! Again, philistine critics may argue that no college would tolerate Thorton's party-boy person; wouldn't the cops arrest him for the voyeuristic dormitory scene or the out-of-control party scene, instead of reprimanding him or bringing Lite beer (remember Rodney was one of the shills for Lite)? However, "Back to School"'s college satire necessarily must employ a little hyperbole to get its point across.
For example, in the classroom scenes with the history professor (the late Sam Kinison) and the business instructor (Paxton Whitehead), the movie does also go a little over the top but also tweaks college for its well-meaning but unrealistically theoretical approach (i.e. head up its a$$ approach) to working and life. Yeah, especially Thornton's take on the corruption and shady dealing it would really take to start a business really do have a germ of truth. Also, the way Thorton "prepares" for his classes -his secretary takes notes for him in class and his research team does his reports and homework- is off the wall but also possesses scientific veracity. I'm sure at Tufts and other colleges, some students never went to class and got others to take notes and do reports. However, (and this is one of my favorite scenes from the movie) only Thornton would heft a report created by his research team and crack, "I dunno; it feels like a "C"; add some more multicolored graphs"." And of course only Thornton would hire Kurt Vonnegut to appraise his own work.
Nevertheless, "Back to School" lets Rodney collide with harsh, poignant reality without sacrificing laughs. Thornton is failing his classes; even the professor most sympathetic to him (Sally Kellerman) suspects him of plagiarism. His son Jason angrily refuses to let Thornton's think tank do his astronomy work. Thornton will be expelled unless he passes a multi-part oral exam (!) by all of his course professors. After a pep talk from Thornton's chauffeur (Burt Young) about Thornton's "School of Hard Knocks" life, Jason realizes that just as his dad came to school to show him how to loosen up and enjoy life, he must show his dad how to handle college responsibilities. And isn't that what college is all about - balancing responsibility and fun to have a meaningfully productive experience?
Therefore, "Back to School" is more than just an "Animal House" retread. It uses Rodney's older, wry perspective (and those priceless one-liners) to point out both the absurdity and importance of college life. Heck, I would even recommend high school seniors applying to colleges to give "Back to School" a look if only to show them (with a grain of salt, of course) that while college is a worthwhile experience, it's also a unique, unfamiliar world all its own.
P.S.: I would advise Cedric the Entertainer to abandon his 2006 remake of "Back to School" as an ill-advised travesty.
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