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Back to School: Extra-Curricular Edition

Rodney Dangerfield shouldn't have been a movie star, perhaps not even a character actor. His true métier was stand-up comedy, but even that nearly eluded him when he abandoned an early, unsuccessful career to sell aluminum siding. It was only when he returned to stand-up while approaching middle age that he became a reliable hit on Ed Sullivan and Dean Martin's broadcasts, and he eventually would log 70 appearances on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. But Hollywood only noticed Dangerfield (born Jacob Cohen on Long Island) after he was cast in Caddyshack (1980) as nouveau riche loudmouth Al Czervik, leading to a trio of lightweight Dangerfield comedies over a ten-year stretch: Easy Money (1983), Back to School (1986), and Ladybugs (1992). Of these, School is the most memorable, thanks to a strong supporting cast and the fact that Dangerfield essentially reprises his Caddyshack role, although this time with a bit more heart. Dangerfield stars as Thornton Melon, a self-made man who emerged from his family's blue-collar roots to become the CEO of his own manufacturing-industrial corporation. However, loads of cash have never sit well with Thornton, who hands wads of it to practically everyone he meets. He also can't relate to his second wife (Adrienne Barbeau) with her spendthrift ways and freeloader friends, and so — after serving her with divorce papers — he heads off to Grand Lakes University with bodyguard/driver Lou (Burt Young) to spend time with his son, Jason (Keith Gordon). The only problem is that a lot of what Jason's told his dad about college isn't true, like his being on the diving team and joining a fraternity. In fact, Jason wants to quit, but Thornton talks him out of it by enrolling in school as well, which he manages with little problem thanks to the donation of a new business school. Thornton even overhauls the dorms, creating a impressive suite for himself, Jason, and roommate Derek (Robert Downey Jr.). But Thornton's newfound romance with English professor Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman) might go nowhere if he can't overcome accusations that his assignments are all ghostwritten by professional experts ranging from NASA scientists to Kurt Vonnegut.

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Back to School is a fairly boilerplate "slobs vs. snobs" story, which, for Dangerfield, first played out on the manicured fairways and greens of the much funnier Caddyshack. It has since been seen in (among other movies) the frat-pack raunch of Old School, which owes more than a passing nod to Dangerfield with its older-guys-on-campus conceit and the series of tests at the finale. Credit script doctor Harold Ramis for getting Back to School ready for the camera by transforming the original, lukewarm script (Dangerfield was to play a janitor) into a frivolous bit of fun by understanding that Thornton Melon could represent a fairly universal fantasy: the idea of returning to school in later life with greater knowledge and much deeper pockets. In fact, this minor comedy became so effortlessly watchable that most folks have probably seen portions of it on cable TV so many times that they've forgotten it has a black-and-white prologue set in 1940. Dangerfield's persona — and ceaseless one-liners, essentially compiled by Ramis into the script — earn top billing, but even with his trademark twitchiness, bug eyes, and husky New York brogue, he essentially leads a welcome ensemble of players. As Thornton's love-interest, velvet-voiced Sally Kellerman is simultaneously age-appropriate and smokin' hot, while Keith Gordon's earnest, occasionally dramatic role as Jason Melon is offset by a loony Robert Downey Jr., who delivers sarcastic asides and excessive '80s fashions (which are even funnier in retrospect). Even small roles are memorable, such as Edie McLurg's scene as Melon's private secretary taking dictation in business class, or Sam Kinison's legendary geyser outburst of right-wing frustration and fury as a history professor haunted by Vietnam. And, yes, that really is Kurt Vonnegut playing himself, for about three seconds. Not everything works — Dangerfield's blues-bar take on "Twist and Shout" is funny, awkward, dated, and oddly nostalgic (take your pick), although it's more than compensated by Oingo Boingo's performance of Dead Man's Party, which allowed score composer Danny Elfman to earn some screen-time as well.

MGM's DVD release of Back to School offers a very good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a clean, pleasant source-print, while the DD 2.0 audio is more than adequate for the material. The many extras include the featurettes "School Daze: The Making of Back to School" (17 min.), "Dissecting the Triple Lindy" (3 min.), "Paying Respect: Remembering Rodney Dangerfield" (10 min.), "Kurt Vonnegut in Memoriam" (1 min.), the vintage promos "News Wrap: From Rocky to Rodney" (3 min.) and "Sports Wrap: Rodney: A Diving Force" (2 min.), as well as a photo gallery, trailer, and three TV spots. Keep-case.

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