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Back to School(1986)
Millionaire businessman Thornton Melon enrolls in college to persuade his son, Jason, not to drop out. How will the campus' oldest freshman fit in? Will he even bother to try?
For more about Back to School and the Back to School Blu-ray release, see the Back to School Blu-ray Review published by Michael Reuben on June 4, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Rodney Dangerfield, Keith Gordon, Burt Young, Sally Kellerman, Robert Downey, Jr., Terry Farrell
Director: Alan Metter
» See full cast & crew
Back to School Blu-ray Review
The biggest man on campus
Reviewed by Michael Reuben, June 4, 2011
By the 1980s, Rodney Dangerfield got lots of respect. He'd made Caddyshack, was a regular on The Tonight Show, HBO and Saturday Night Live, owned a famous club in Manhattan, and had helped start careers for countless comics, including Jim Carrey, Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne, Tim Allen, Rita Rudner and Sam Kinison. Still, the essence of Dangerfield's comic persona was that of a harried blue collar guy, never entirely comfortable in a suit and tie and constantly hassled by people who looked down on him. So established and beloved was Rodney's "no respect" image that he managed to maintain it in 1986's Back to School, where he played a sharp businessman worth millions, who also happened to be an athlete - and got the girl. Back to School was Dangerfield's highest grossing star vehicle. Only he could have pulled it off.
Dangerfield is Thornton Meloni, a son of immigrants who grew up poor on New York's Lower East Side. In a black-and-white flashback, we see young Thornton (Jason Hervey) bring home a bad report card to his father (Boris Aplon), a tailor, who lectures his son on the importance of education. Young Thornton grows up to be Thornton "Melon" (dropping the "i") and makes a fortune with a chain of stores catering to the wardrobe needs of the oversized. He calls his shops "Melon's Tall & Fat" and brags that Orson Welles was a customer.
Thornton's first marriage produced a son, Jason (Keith Gordon), on whom he dotes. His second wife is a golddigger named Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau). After suffering through a pretentious party thrown by Vanessa for a bunch of social climbers - the occasion lets Thornton get off numerous one-liners - Thornton leaves to visit Jason at Grand Lakes University, accompanied by his long-time friend, chauffeur and bodyguard, Lou (Burt Young).
Thornton doesn't find what he expected. Jason had reported joining a fraternity and being accepted on the diving team, but none of it is true. His only friend is his roommate, a fey artistic type named Derek Lutz (a baby-faced Robert Downey, Jr.). Jason's confidence is so low that he blew his diving tryout for Coach Turnbull (M. Emmet Walsh), even though it's the family sport in which his father, a former professional, personally trained him. (Dangerfield has a stunt double; just go with it.) The girl on whom Jason has a crush, Valerie Desmond (a pre-Deep Space Nine Terry Farrell), doesn't know he exists, and everything seems hopeless. Jason wants to drop out.
When Thornton tries to give Jason the same speech his father gave him, Jason points out that Thornton did just fine without higher education. In a desperate move, Thornton says they'll do college together and heads straight to the dean's office to arrange a mid-year admission, despite having no transcripts, high school diploma or S.A.T. scores. The dean, David Martin - yes, that makes him "Dean Martin" - is played by Ned Beatty with just the right amount of sanctimony to navigate the hairpin turn from "no way!" to "welcome!" when Thornton offers a huge endowment. Thus does Thornton Melon become the oldest freshman at Grand Lakes University. As co-screenwriter Harold Ramis says in the "School Daze" featurette, who wouldn't jump at the chance to do college with a fat wallet and the self-confidence of adulthood?
The original script for Back to School envisioned Thornton as poor, and traces of that concept remain in the disdain with which some students and many faculty treat him, except that their complaint in the script as shot is that a nouveau riche lout bought his way into a position at an elite school he couldn't achieve on his own merits. Chief among the naysayers is Dr. Phillip Barbay (Paxton Whitehead), whose business economics class Thornton constantly disrupts with real world questions about unions, zoning regulations and foreign competition. Eventually, Thornton gives up and sends his secretary, Marge (a hilarious Edie McClurg), to transcribe the lectures.
Thornton does win over the history professor, Terguson (the late Sam Kinison, at full volume), though everyone knows he's crazy. ("Good teacher. He really seems to care. About what I have no idea.") But the teacher with whom Thornton truly bonds is Dr. Diane Turner, played by Sally Kellerman with sexy enthusiasm. She introduces herself to the class by reading the rapturous ending of Molly Bloom's soliloquy from Joyce's Ulysses. She may be dating Dr. Barbay, but what she really wants is someone to have fun with - and "fun" quickly becomes Thornton Melon's major, as he throws wild parties, carouses at the local bar and generally becomes everyone's best friend. The only thing he takes seriously is diving, especially after Jason, newly inspired by his father, makes the team - a development that doesn't sit well with the current team champion, Chas (William Zabka, playing essentially the same part he played in The Karate Kid and Just One of the Guys).
Eventually Thornton's shenanigans catch up with him, and he has to buckle down and study or risk expulsion. Does anyone doubt that a man of Thornton's accomplishments can pull it off? And, at a critical moment, Coach Turnbull drafts him as a substitute member of the diving team, getting him to perform a near-impossible maneuver known as "the Triple Lindy" that Thornton used to do in his younger days at the Jersey shore. Plot contrivances like these shouldn't work, but they do, because they're variations on the essence of Dangerfield's comedy: winning over an audience and getting them to root for your success on stage by parading your flaws and exaggerating them to the point of absurdity.
Harold Ramis tailored the script to its star by inserting dozens of one-liners from Dangerfield's act, but his performance isn't just stand-up. Great comics have to be good actors, and in moments when Thornton is emotional (primarily with his son or with Diane Turner), Dangerfield is thoroughly believable. One of the reasons why Back to School holds up - and probably one of the reasons why Dangerfield was so adored by the public - is that underneath the comic mayhem, there was always a beating heart.
Back to School Blu-ray, Video Quality
The AVC-encoded image for Back to School is noticeably grainy, and the amount of grain varies significantly from shot to shot. As a general matter, brightly lit scenes, especially outdoors, show the least amount of visible grain, and it's only in darker scenes, either indoors or outdoors at night or in shadow, that heavy grain becomes noticeable. This phenomenon is clearly source-based, because it changes precisely when the scene changes. Digital tools exist to reduce or eliminate such grain without losing picture detail, but they have to be applied carefully by expert hands, and studios aren't yet ready to invest in the effort for anything but their A-list catalogue titles. Until that attitude changes, the preferred approach is the one taken here, which is to leave the grain intact, rather than recklessly sand it off, along with vital picture detail.
Detail is adequate but not exceptional, and the same is true of the black levels, which often appear to be crushed. Here again, this appears to be source-based and may be a product of inadequate lighting during principal photography. (Much of the film was shot on location at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and location lighting can be difficult to control.) Colors are generally realistic and not heavily saturated, but the school color is red, which ensures that there's usually something bright in the frame.
Back to School Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Presented in DTS lossless, the soundtrack has been remixed for 5.1, but I don't know why anyone bothered. The mix remains entirely front-oriented with almost no surround presence. The two essential components are the dialogue, which is clear, and the energetic score by Danny Elfman, who appears in the film with his band, Oingo Boingo, playing at one of Thornton's dorm parties. The music sounds great, but it would have been just as good in stereo.
Back to School Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
All of the extras have been ported over from the 2007 DVD, with the exception of a small photo gallery and several trailers for other films.
As with other recent MGM discs, e.g., Get Shorty, Fox has mastered this title with no main menu. The disc goes directly from loading to playback. During playback, the pop-up menu contains an option for "pause" but none for "menu", and any attempt to access a "top menu" produces an error message. After the film finishes, it simply starts again from the beginning. This arrangement is a huge inconvenience for playing extras.
Despite the "bare bones" menu structure, Fox has nevertheless mastered the disc with BD-Java, which wouldn't matter so much except that the ability to set bookmarks has been omitted. No BDJ-encoded disc should ever lack this capability. BDJ prevents the user from stopping playback and starting from the same position, and bookmarking is the only workaround. Its omission is inexcusable.
Back to School Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Rodney Dangerfield was a one-of-a-kind original, and as the overview of his career in the disc's extras suggest, he worked hard at it. Too little of his stand-up work and TV appearances has appeared on disc, but Back to School is his single best film, and its appearance on Blu-ray is welcome. If you already own the DVD, this isn't such a huge upgrade that it's worth rushing out and buying. But if you're a first-time purchaser, it's the obvious choice. You may not get a pristine image or an elaborate sound design, but you'll get the great Dangerfield at his best - and that's a lot.
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