Rodney Dangerfield is a wealthy clothing chain owner. He’s got plenty of cash, is crass, knows how to have fun, is a great high diver and a has a son who he loves. He also has a gold-digger wife and no formal education.
That changes when he dumps his wife (Adrinne Barbeau of all people!) and joins his son by enrolling in college alongside him. Rodney is let loose on campus! And he’s bringing along his patented one-liners and plenty of outrageous gags that unfold as he goes after his diploma.
Back To School is as straight forward a comedy as you can get. You take a unique comic talent, plop them down in a setting they’re not accustomed to and let the laughs begin.
It’s almost like you could take the ‘Back To School’ story and give it to any one of a kind strong comedic personality and have them have fun with fish out of water formula. Have a bus pick up Jerry Lewis, the Marx Brothers, Richard Pryor, Jack Benny, Mel Brooks, heck even Adam Sandler, send them back to school and bam there’s your story.
Rodney excels in this. It’s one of my favorite movies he did. The jokes start flying from the get go and they keep up until the end. There are a lot of funny gags with wealthy Rodney making school living as comfortable as he’s accustomed.
I always loved the shot of Rodney, Gordon and Robert Downey Jr. walking into their separate dorm rooms from the hallway and the reveal once they’re inside we see their three separate doors open to a mammoth, lavishly decorated suite.
The movie also manages a good amount of heart with Rodney’s relationship with his son Gordon. Things could easily get sappy and forced, but their father/son dynamic works well. It would have been simple to just have Gordon cringing with embarrassment by his dad as soon as he walks onto campus, but I always liked how Gordon accepts his father’s antics at the start. There’s a bit of eye-rolling at points, but he kind of laughs along with his Dad for most of the movie. It’s kind of sweet.
Of course, later there comes a breaking point when his son has had enough of his father trying to skirt through his classes without doing the work.
The tension builds as Gordon and English professor (and love interest) Sally Kellerman react in disappointment at Rodney’s blasé attitude and buying his way to his diploma. That’s when Rodney devotes himself to actually learning and honestly earning his degree with one of those fun 80’s montages.
Rodney has a great supporting cast backing him up. Along with Kellerman and Gordon, there’s Burt Young as his tough pal limo driver, Downey Jr. as Gordon’s wacky pal. Terry Farrell as the gal Gordon is completely smitten with. Ned Beatty as the college dean Dean Martin (I’m surprised no one had done that joke before this). A memorable appearance by Sam Kinison as an unhinged history professor that, you guessed, tends to scream a lot. Plus, the always great M. Emmet Walsh as the college diving coach,
Yes, the college diving coach. Somehow Back To School manages to squeeze in an underdog sports story as well. Rodney show off the famed and death-defying Triple Lindy dive at the climax of the movie. He not only wins his education, but the big diving competition too!
It’s pretty nutty, but somehow it works. Honestly, it does! I get into watching the obviously fake Rodney flipping through the air and getting ’10’s’ from the judges.
Toss in some Oingo Boingo (there’s a lot of fun music in this), Paxton Whitehead as a snobby professor Rodney drives crazy, famed 80’s movie bully William Zabka as Gordon’s romantic nemesis and Rodney singing Twist and Shout (back in ’86 it seemed like everyone was singing that song) and Back to School ends up being a fun comedy that delivers exactly what you would want.
Every 80’s movie needed a music video! Here’s Jude Cole singing the catchy title song.