Summer School (1987) – A Review
Mark Harmon is Freddy Shoop, a high school gym teacher who lives for the summer. He doesn’t place much importance on education and his teaching philosophy is to get through the school year with as much ease and fun as he can manage and celebrate when summer arrives -then he can really have fun!
This year, Shoop’s playful summer plans get cancelled when he’s ordered to teach a group of misfit students remedial English. These kids are not the most motivated to study, read or to learn anything.
Now, Shoop has to try to figure out how to be a teacher, try to land a date with fellow teacher Kirstie Alley, prove to vice principal Robin Thomas these kids aren’t as dumb as he believes and motivate them enough so they’ll pass their makeup test in order to secure his own job. Can he possibly manage to accomplish all this? Come on….what do you think?
Directed by Carl Reiner, Summer School is one of those light, breezy 1980s comedies that were a fixture in cinemas during that decade. It’s one of those high concept stories that isn’t complicated, doesn’t try to get fancy and gets a massive amount of help by a charming cast and some fun one-liners that helped make it an enjoyable watch.
I would classify it as sort of ‘cinematic junk food’ – it tastes pretty good, it fills you up, but you could’ve been eating something much more rewarding. It’s not something to rave about, but it does deliver on exactly what it promises.
Over the years Summer School managed to attain a bit of cult following. It was one of those films I would see constantly played on cable. Thanks to so many of those repeated viewings, the movie wiggled its way into the hearts of devoted fans.
The film plays as much of showcase for Harmon, as much as a summer comedy. He gets to show off his charisma, look cool in his Hawaiian shirts and shades, spout out some amusing jokes and have a loose, relaxed anti-establishment attitude towards the stuffy Thomas.
Around this time Harmon was famously voted as People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. He got a lot of attention for being anointed with that title. The role of Freddy Shoop in Summer School almost seems designed to parlay that ‘Sexiest Man’ moniker into a movie career.
Harmon in the role as Freddy Shoop was certainly a much more mainstream one than his performance as Ted Bundy in the television movie The Deliberate Stranger. A movie that he was excellent in by the way. If you haven’t seen it you should really check it out, especially if you’re into all the recent Bundy projects that have popped up recently. Why I never see The Deliberate Stranger playing anywhere on television is a mystery to me. It’s a terrific film.
Harmon delivers in Summer School. He’s likable, charming, easy-going, funny. If you were sentenced to summer school he’s exactly the kind of teacher you would hope to get. His movie career never really took off despite him starring in a string of films. I guess he was much better suited for television, a place he continues to be successful on to this day.
Along with Harmon, Kirstie Alley plays a fellow teacher who he’s crushing on. There’s a bit of roadblock with romance since she’s dating Thomas, the same man who’s out to watch Shoop fail at his summer teaching sentence.
The romance subplot really takes a backseat to Shoop’s students, who are a collection of screw-ups and geeks and whose studying is a chore they have to be dragged kicking and screaming to do.
A pregnant teen, a dyslexic bad driver, a quarterback wannabe, a goofy nerd, a surfing lover who’s crushing on Harmon, a part-time male stripper – they all have their own little stories that get setup and play out in the course of the movie.
Shoop finds a solution to get them to study up when he makes a deal with his student body to grant them ‘one wish’ to each of them. These ‘wishes’ range from him being a lamaze coach to hosting a party at his place for them. So, the comedic antics get to break free from the stuffy classroom.
The two students who easily steal the spotlight are Dave and ‘Chainsaw’ (Gary Riley and Dean Cameron), the horror-loving, Ken Baker-worshipping, Texas Chainsaw Massacre-obsessed pair, who provide countless one-liners, Siskel and Ebert impressions and display their talents for their own bloody makeup ideas.
If you’ve seen the film it’s most likely Dave and ‘Chainsaw’ who you remember the most out of that classroom. The rest of the students get their moments, but it’s hard for anyone to top the duos more showy moments that run throughout the movie.
Even with the allure of seeing Shawnee Smith and Courtney Thorne-Smith in early roles, Riley and Cameron steal the show. It’s no wonder the film trailer put them front and center.
I would feel terrible if I didn’t mention Fabiana Udenio, who arrives to this summer school as an Italian exchange student. It’s not much of a demanding role, Udenio only has to tag along with the group and look stunning – which she definitely does!
Most movielovers probably know her as ‘Alotta Fagina in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. In Summer School she gets a small head-turning role. It’s bad enough these kids are forced into summer school, but having to sit next to Udenio throughout the summer would be one awful big additional distraction from having to study!
I know it has devoted fans who love it immensely, but I wouldn’t call Summer School a great comedy. It’s amusing and harmless. The story is predictable, the jokes aren’t exactly gut busting. However, it is the cast who are all so likable in their parts, game to play along and who sell it all with such enthusiasm that they are the reasons the movie stays afloat and makes it an entertaining, light watch.
Had the film had a completely different cast, I wonder if Summer School would be such a fan favorite. I somehow doubt it.
As we’ve witnessed the downward spiral most of the comedy genre has taken and see what Hollywood considers ‘a comedy film’ today, watching Summer School now it plays as such an innocuous comedy that’s only intention is trying to please. It doesn’t try to get by with potty humor, vulgarity, gross out gags. It might play things on the safe side and is silly, but it does have a wholesome charm about it that makes it hard to dislike.
It kind of amazes me that the bar for comedy films has been lowered so much, that I’d say Summer School, despite being such a disposable movie, is a throwback to a time when filmmakers actually tried to make funny comedies.