I don’t want you to think I’m a Luddite, but it does make me sad that advancing technology has done away with so many lovely quirks. For instance, the advent of streaming services – and, even earlier, DVD and Blu-Ray – have done away with the idea of the TV mix-VHS.
If you’re too young to remember VHS tapes, you’re probably too young to remember mixtapes, which makes explaining the mixed VHS a challenge. However, I shall endeavor to try. You see, back in the 1990s, if you had a crush on somebody, it was popular to send them a mixtape. Such mixtapes were a carefully curated selection of songs, chosen for the way they complemented each other. If you were sending the tape to someone you loved, you would pick songs that described the way you felt. However, music lovers would also assemble tapes for private listening, songs that centered around a common theme.
Cinephiles took the mixtape concept and put their own spin on it, using their VCR recorders. With the help of the week’s TV Guide, movie fans would pop a blank tape into their VCR and program the player to record programs from certain channels at certain times. When done with precision, the resulting double- or triple-features would act in the same way as a mixtape, with the films centering on a common theme. Sometimes, however, the tape would merely consist of several films mashed together with no rhyme or reason.
As a child of the ’90s, mixed VHSes played a role in my growth into a cinema lover. I only really curated one tape – a much-missed triple feature of Creepshow, Creepshow 2, and The Howling – but my parents had inadvertently created other mixed videos that came to mean a lot to me. There was a mash-up of the 1989 Sly Stallone action flick Lock-Up, Star Trek Generations, and episodes of The Brady Bunch. However, the one I loved most had only two films on it: Kindergarten Cop and the 1986 flick Back To School.
Back when I was young, I was a huge fan of Kindergarten Cop (still am, in fact), and that was the primary attraction the tape held for me. However, there were times that I didn’t feel like fast-forwarding through the first film on the tape, so I would watch Back To School. I always liked it, but, through continued exposure, I came to love it. So, when I found a DVD copy of it at Dollar General a week ago, I picked it up.
So, did Back To School hold up, or is it all nostalgia? Read on and I’ll tell you!
The film begins in New York City circa 1940, as a young Thornton Melon (Jason Hervey, AKA Wayne on The Wonder Years) enters his father’s clothing shop. Thornton hands his father his lackluster report card. Thornton’s father tells his son about the importance of education, letting him know that without one, life is a lot harder.
Flash forward forty years. The adult Thornton (Rodney Dangerfield) never went to college, but he did follow in his father’s footsteps, re-tooling the clothing shop into a line of successful stores catering to taller and fatter individuals. Thornton is rich, he has a nice house, and his son Jason (Keith Gordon) is in college. However, all is not well in Thornton’s life: his second wife Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau) is cheating on him, and Jason won’t come home due to a distaste for his stepmother. Things come to a head during a party, after which Thornton and Vanessa agree to separate. Left with nothing to do, Thornton and his chauffeur/bodyguard Lou (Burt Young) leave for Jason’s college.
Thornton arrives to find Jason discouraged. Jason has only one friend – the free-thinking, blue-haired Derek Lutz (Robert Downey, Jr.), but the two of them have no other friends. Jason is tormented by Chas (William Zabka), the preppy leader of the swim team from which Jason was cut. Jason has a crush on the popular Valerie Desmond (Terry Farrell), but he’s afraid to approach her. Wanting to help his son, Thornton decides to make the ultimate move to help his son. Making a deal with the college’s president (Ned Beatty), Thornton signs on as the college’s oldest freshman!
However, Thornton’s plan proves to have a few flaws. Thornton falls in love with his English professor, Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman), but he makes an enemy of Gordon Bombay (Paxton Whitehead), Diane’s suitor – and Thornton’s business professor. Jason quickly becomes annoyed with his father’s lazy attitude and feels overshadowed by his father’s growing popularity. Thornton is discouraged by these developments, but he’s determined to make this school year work – and to help his son.
The enjoy-ability of Back To School depends on how much you like Rodney Dangerfield. He’s in almost every scene, he has all the most memorable lines, and the film depends on his charm to carry the audience through the story. This is a classic Dangerfield schtick – a loud, brash guy drops into an upscale environment – and I happen to like this particular routine. Essentially, if you like this scene, you’ll like the whole film!
However, that’s not to say that Rodney Dangerfield is the only reason to see Back To School. In fact, one of the most fun parts of the film is to watch the vast array of character actors in the supporting roles! In fact, the film’s cast is essentially a murderer’s row of fine actors and fan favorites, including Robert Downey, Jr., Ned Beatty, Burt Young, M. Emmet Walsh, William Zabka, Sam Kinison, Sally Kellerman, Danny Elfman and his band Oingo Boingo, and even Kurt Vonnegut. None of these actors have as flashy a part as Dangerfield, but the filmmakers – including such all-stars as Chuck Russell (The Mask) and Harold Ramis – seemed to know that surrounding Dangerfield with talent would only make the film better. It works beautifully!
The script runs more on concept than on plot; the story draws most of its inspiration from variations on the basic joke of Rodney Dangerfield going to college. It also suffers from something I like to call Stand-Up Syndrome: most of Dangerfield’s lines consist of one-liners and little else. However, the script ensures that all the other characters have strong personalities that clash with Dangerfield’s in entertaining ways. It’s fun to watch the sparks fly, fun enough that it’s easy to forgive the flimsy character development.
Is Back To School a masterpiece? No. However, it’s hard to go in expecting one. Looking at the poster, it’s easy to see exactly what the movie is: one of the many high-concept ’80s comedies slapped together to make money off of a comedian’s popularity. Seen in that light, the film delivers in spades.
In other words, I don’t think it’s just nostalgia. Back To School passes!
Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars