Movie review: ‘Back to School’

You knew what you were in for when you went to a movie by the late Rodney Dangerfield: shtick, sarcasm, barbed criticism and pointed irony. At the end, it was all fall-down funny. First he was in “Caddyshack” then “Easy Money” and in 1986 it was “Back to School.” It was better than “Easy Money” because I believe that Dangerfield gained from his first experience as a headliner. “Back to School” was a big hit so you’ve most likely seen it, but it’s worth another look especially if it has been awhile since you’ve watched it.

‘Back to School’
(1986; 96 minutes; rated PG-13; directed by Alan Metter and starring Rodney Dangerfield, Burt Young, Keith Gordon and Robert Downey Jr.)


(NOTE: I updated links in this review on July 20, 2015.)

Rodney Dangerfield was a very funny man. He was one of those comedians who could get a laugh just from walking into a room (in his case probably adjusting his tie). Dangerfield’s films only enhanced that comedy reputation and “Back to School” is his best effort as a headliner with the most screen time.


Dangerfield is better known for his role in the comedy classic “Caddyshack” in 1980 and he followed that up with three years later with “Easy Money” (click here for my review). Still, he managed to take it to yet another level with “Back to School,” where he does things like fire Kurt Vonnegut for writing a bad paper about Kurt Vonnegut. The best thing is that all the jokes work and there isn’t a flat stretch in the film.

In “Back to School” Dangerfield, who passed away in 2004 at the age of 82, plays “Thornton Melon,” a self-made millionaire who built his fortune around a clothing store. He’s widowed with a second wife who’s socially grasping and cheats on him and his son’s off to college where he’s not doing too well.

After this plays out a bit, Dangerfield decides to go back to school and thereby provide the film a canvas that includes the obligatory run into a sorority house shower, a college town bar fight and the squaring off against the jocks (except instead of football, this one is framed by the sport of diving — you can’t forget the “Triple Lindy” once you’ve seen this one).

Along the way he finds love (with a professor) and manages to get his son to appreciate him as a person. It’s all tied up with a neat bow and you feel good when the credits roll.

Dangerfield, who was also in “Natural Born Killers,” the kid soccer movie “Ladybugs” and “Little Nicky,” basically plays himself on a stand-up stage here but is so good at it that he pulls it off with panache. The role wasn’t worthy of an Oscar or Golden Globe nomination, but he was better here than some Oscar winners for other comedy roles.

Keith Gordon, who became possessed by a car in “Christine” (click here for my review), plays “Jason Melon” and is looking to find himself at college. However, he’s failed at making the diving team, getting into a fraternity or getting a girlfriend. Gordon is convincing and manages a neat range of emotions and is cast perfectly in this role. He was also in “All That Jazz” (click here for my review) and “Dressed to Kill.”

Robert Downey Jr. is in familiar territory here as oddball “Derek Lutz” (Gordon tells Dangerfield something like “I have one friend and it’s him and he doesn’t have any friends.”). Downey knows how to play odd and he also brings some vulnerability and sense of loyalty to the role. He of course has been in the “Iron Man” franchise as well as eclectic fare as “Less Than Zero” and “Johnny Be Good” (click here for my review).

The most remembered supporting role is by the hyper comic Sam Kinison, who plays the angry, easily agitated “Professor Turgeson.” Kinison is pure electricity here with his abrasive personality and cutting, sarcastic voice. Kinison is a piece of perfect casting here … right, “Mr. Helper?”

Another good supporting effort is by veteran character actor Burt Young, who plays Dangerfield’s tough-guy sidekick and chauffeur “Lou.” Young does the hulking thug with a gravelly voice well here and has been in HBO’s “The Sopranos” as well as “Murph the Surf” (click here for my review) and his iconic character “Paulie” in the “Rocky” franchise.

Paired together at the beginning of Dangerfield’s college career are Sally Kellerman as “Dr. Diane Turner” and Paxton Whitehead as “Dr. Phillip Barbay.” Kellerman, who was the original “Maj. Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ O’Houlihan” in the “MASH” movie (the character’s name was changed to “Houlihan” for the TV series and the asterisks were added in the movie posters but not in the credits), becomes Dangerfield’s love interest as she loses interest in Whitehead, who is the business professor who hates Dangerfield.

Kellerman expresses the willowy, mellow personality of her character perfectly, just as Whitehead is matchless in his portrayal of a high-handed snob. Kellerman was also in the horrid “Moving Violations” (click here for my review) as well as a string of TV appearances. Whitehead has also been in a string of TV shows as well as the films “Kate & Leopold” and “Baby Boom.”

I personally have always enjoyed how actor William Zabka perfected the role of blond, muscular bad guys – either jerks (watch “Just One of the Guys” – click here for my review) or bullies (watch “The Karate Kid”). He plays “Chas” here and does his usual excellent job as the BMOC who has to take a fall. Zabka has also been in “European Vacation” and TV shows such as “Psych.”

Back to School” was the sixth ranked film at the U.S. box office in 1986 with $91.2 million in receipts, according to Box Office Mojo and Wiki notes that it has since made more than $40 million in video rentals. It was bested by Tom Cruise’s iconic “Top Gun” with $176.7 million and “Crocodile Dundee” with $174.8 million as the top two films.

Assorted cast and film notes (via; opinion is mine):

  • Kurt Vonnegut plays himself and was hired by Dangerfield to write a book report on one of his works. Of course Kellerman, who is a literature professor, notes that the book report’s writer “doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut.” Vonnegut actually has four acting credits, but 18 credits in roles as “himself.”
  • Adrienne Barbeau does a fine job as Dangerfield’s chronically unfaithful second wife “Vanessa” and I would have liked to have seen more of this character because she was so effective as the bad wife. Barbeau was also in “Escape from New York” (click for my review) and a string of TV roles including her most noted TV role on “Maude.”
  • Veteran actor Ned Beatty plays “Dean David Martin” with ease and Dangerfield and Downey laugh when they hear “Dean Martin.” Beatty was also in roles stretching from “Deliverance” to “Superman” to “Charlie Wilson’s War” (click here for my review).
  • The room where Dangerfield is grilled in a test by professors is the same one used for the shooting of the final dance scene in “Flashdance.”
  • Directly from “Kevin Spacey appears briefly as a waiter as Dangerfield is eating his big sandwich at the party. (Appx. 11:35 into the film).”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2015.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material
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