Back to School (1986)

Directed by Alan Metter

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Back to School feels like the 80s college movie that every other college movie has tried to parody.  The story is unimportant as it’s built on tropes, cliches and melodrama and never really commits to anything beyond the most immediate joke.  That’s not a criticism, or maybe subconsciously it is, just that this is a Rodney Dangerfield vehicle for people who like Rodney Dangerfield.  I like Rodney Dangerfield.

He plays Thornton Melon, a rich, twice-divorced man who after his most recent divorce decides he wants to go visit his son, Jason (Keith Gordon) at college.  Though surprised to see him, Jason is far from irritated and confides in his dad that he wants to dropout.  To convince him to stay Thornton decides to enroll in college too.

From that point on you get a string of college ‘greatest hits.’  There’s the luxuriously renovated dorm room, the college rager, the sporting event, the evil dean, the love interest (x2), the alternative friend who mocks everything (comparing football to nuclear war), and then the big final exam.

There are a series of vignettes that set Dangerfield up to deliver any number of Dangerfield-esque jokes, and surprisingly enough I suppose it all holds together.  It’s kind of sweet, especially as Jason is weirdly enamored with his overbearing, reckless father, and Robert Downey Jr. is fun to watch in one of his earliest roles.  There’s even a run of solid character actors like Burt Young and M. Emmet Walsh.

What’s interesting about a comedy like this is how it insists on framing the comedian in a way that he always has high status.  He’s just about always funnier, more successful and more deserving of our admiration than anyone else on screen, notably the evil dean who is of course involved with the woman whom the comedian pines after and eventually wins.

The main character here has a flaw or two to overcome, but he’s already received so much.  He’s like a rich kid who is on timeout, but when those fifteen minutes are up he’ll be given a hundred dollars.

It’s weird, not that it doesn’t work, but you’d think comedy would be derived from losing, and losing repeatedly.  Take, for example, Monsieur Hulot, the famous French character in Jacques Tati films like Mon Oncle and Playtime.  From my admittedly vague recollection he is a character who is mystified by the world around him.  Everything is strange and kind of unknowable, and thus he is a bit like a child navigating it all for the first time.

In this dynamic such a character is closer to playing the fool, clueless and at times inept.  He endures a series of brick walls whereas the more American character just continues to win.  In Thornton’s case he is already incredibly wealthy and goes down this storyline simply because he has the time and resources to do so.  He’s someone who has won and proves to everyone else around that he is right to have won, it is no mistake.

So Thornton is of the wealthy class, and Monsieur Hulot is middle class or poor.  We laugh not at Thornton but with him.  Yes he’s clownish in some ways, but he’s always pointing out flaws around him and by comparison never failing to elevate himself.  Something something else about class.

I’m not sure what it means or where it derives from.  Maybe in America we simply like to watch people win and believe that it means we can and should win too.  It’s capitalist, right?  We see ourselves as Thornton and to a lesser extent Jason too.  They want something, they endure for a bit, and then they get it.

For Monsieur Hulot he will remain perpetually mystified (though maybe I should first watch the rest of his films) because sometimes you just don’t win, the world changes and the finish line is pushed further back.

Up Next: The Birdcage (1996), Bad Times at the El Royale (2018), Every Thing Will Be Fine (2015)

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