The United Kingdom is a place where, back in the 80’s, over 70 films were labelled ‘video nasties’ and deemed illegal on account of their depraved content. At the same time, Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School was not released at all, despite being the sixth most popular film of the year in the US. Without using any ‘adjusted for inflation’ rubric, Back to School would be a film bigger than Fast and Furious: Hobbs and Shaw or Aladdin in 2019. So why was Back to School impossible to see while The Beast in Heat and Gestapo’s Last Orgy were on the video-shop shelves?
The answer, of course, comes down to money; no distributor thought that Back to School would make a buck in the staid-minded UK. While is ironic, given that Alan Metter’s film, from writers including Harold Ramis, reflects on how money changes perceptions, and doesn’t suggest that financial prosperity is the most important thing. Dangerfield brings his best boggle-eyed gaze to the role of Thornton Melon, a businessman who has off-the-radar wealth, a beautiful unfaithful wife (Adrienne Barbeau) and a son who lacks gumption. ‘Remember, you’re a Melon’ Thornton tells his son (Keith Gordon), and Back to School sees father attempt to show his son how to get an education. Unfortunately, Thornton Melon only understands business and not learning, and the stage is set for a clash between commerce and education.
Any film that starts with a non-stop stream of fat jokes needs to be carefully approached, but Thornton Melon is a more complex character than might be expected. He is crude, yet he gets what he wants; you can insert your own 2019 political allusion here. He walks into a campus bookshop, puts his credit card behind the counter and announces ‘Shakespeare for all!,’ before eyeing up the cashier with the line ’I’d like to tame her Shrew!’. The screenplay places the wealthy Melon within a vaudevillian tradition of ne’er-do-wells, an oaf who thinks that Joyce is a woman, an affluent man-child who complains to art-lovers that he fears his wife has being showing other men her Klimt. He is an immigrant who lack nuance, and yet he’s less of an idiot than a holy fool who speaks an unvarnished truth in the guise of crude jokes.
Although the diving competition scene goes on a little long, there’s a variety of amusements here; a key scene involves Melon memorably reciting Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into This Good Night in the room where the final audition for Flashdance was filmed. And there’s terrific support turns from Burt Young, Ned Beatty, M Emmett Walsh and Robert Downey Jr, with long coat, ruffled shirt and multi-coloured hair looking like The Breakfast Club’s John Bender and Ferris Bueller fell into a blender.
Back to School was a funny movie in 1986, and it’s still funny now; the suggestion that money can’t buy everything seems richer with the passing years. Author Kurt Vonnegut appears as himself, hired to write an assignment about his own work (which he fails) and Danny Elfman turns up with his band Oingo Boingo as a frat house entertainment, as if any further inducement to consume this (once unavailable) product is required.