Rodney Dangerfield gets no respect when he goes "Back to School" (1986).
If I had to pick my top three all-time favorite stand-up comics the list would include Don Rickles, Jackie Mason and Rodney Dangerfield. Dangerfield, more than the other two comics, made a mark on the pop culture and created a comedy persona easy for audiences to identity with. The persona was so strong people wrongly confuse the man for the character and assume Rodney Dangerfield was a crass, ignorant fool who got no respect in life.
This is similar to Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy. Their personas were so strong, they worked so hard at creating them, finding the proper tone and putting a little bit of themselves into the characters, audiences "bought" it and fully believed in them. Behind every joke they say is a bit of truth.
Rodney Dangerfield did have a rough life. He came from a working class family. His mother's family came to America from Hungary. His father was a drunk and left home when Rodney was a boy. Like most people growing up during the Great Depression, Rodney started working at an early age to help support the family. Deep down Mr. Dangerfield probably felt he got no respect.
All of this was encompassed in Mr. Dangerfield's stand-up act. He would consistently make jokes about a wife that cheated on him, children that didn't love him and a society that always had a wise-crack for him.
In a certain respect I'd like to compare Mr. Dangerfield to the great comics of the 1930s and 40s; W.C. Fields, Jack Benny, Bob Hope. Mr. Dangerfield was a great comic but like those classic comics of the era before him, they all found success in a medium other than movies. When they tried to appear in movies, something was missing. They had to play a "character". They couldn't be themselves. No plot could perfectly capture their persona and elevate it.
Once in a while gold would struck. For W.C. Fields it was "It's A Gift" (1934), for Laurel & Hardy "Sons of the Desert" (1933), for Woody Allen "Annie Hall" (1977) and for Rodney Dangerfield it was "Back to School".
"Back to School" is not a great movie. It is not a great comedy. But it is a good "Rodney Dangerfield comedy". It is, I would dare say, the best comedy he appeared in. "Back to School" takes advantage of all the facets of Mr. Dangerfield's persona. It is a movie which actually creates a character somewhat molded after the perception audiences had of Mr. Dangerfield and builds upon it. There is a character there and a somewhat decent enough story to carry along events and keep our interest. Not to mention, it allows Mr. Dangerfield the room to do his act and deliver several of his wise-cracks. That's more than other movies starring Rodney Dangerfield ever did.
Sure "Caddyshack" (1980) may be considered by some a classic comedy (I'm not one of them) and "Easy Money" (1983) may have its moments, but, those movies didn't really provided Mr. Dangerfield with a character, despite the fact Mr. Dangerfield was one of the co-writers of "Easy Money". Those movies presented Mr. Dangerfield as Nouveau riche. A low-class, ignorant man who collided with upper-class society. Granted "Back to School" has elements of that but what "Back to School" does different is it adds onto that whereas "Caddyshack" merely settles for that and provided nothing else to the character except loud, exaggerated clothes.
In "Back to School" Mr. Dangerfield plays Thornton Melon, son of an Italian immigrant, who owned a tailor shop. Thornton's father always had high hopes for his son and wanted him to get a college education. Thornton's father would tell him, it doesn't matter how much money you have or how famous you are, if you have no education you are nothing.
This is a sentiment audiences, especially those that are first-generation Americans, can understand. I was the first person in my family to go to college and get a degree. It meant something to me and to my family.
Thornton never does go to college but becomes a wealthy business man when he grows his father's tailor shop into a "Tall and Fat" clothing store that has become a successful franchise.
Now Thornton has a son, Jason (Keith Gordon) who is going to college. This allows Thornton to live through his son as he hopes Jason will accomplish all the things he was never able to.
Thornton lives with his second wife, Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau), a gold digger only after Thornton's money. She looks down on him as a working-class bum who is too unsophisticated to mingle with her rich, intelligent friends. If that isn't enough, she is also cheating on him. Thornton catches her in the act on the night she is throwing a party to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary.
Deciding to end their marriage, Thornton travels with his bodyguard (Burt Young) to visit Jason at his college campus, where Thornton learns Jason has lied about how well he is doing. In order to encourage his son to remain in school Thornton decided to finally enroll in college and get his degree.
Reading this story I wouldn't be surprised if audiences assumed the story would now become one of a son embarrassed by his father, who would be a laughing stock at the campus not only because of his age but because of his lack of education and Thornton's crass way with words. I'm happy to say that is not what "Back to School" is. It also isn't a bonding film between father and son. Oh, sure, it goes through some of the motions but "Back to School" has a sentimental side to it and it is about second chances. Getting a second chance to get an education, a second chance at love and second chance at making a first impression. Characters say things like, you can accomplish whatever you want in life as long as you believe in yourself.
It is a sweet message even if some argue it is a naive one. But while "Back to School" may not have a profound message it is smart in its ways. Behind its Hollywood sensibility is a story that understands its characters and a particular mind-set.
The movie was directed by Alan Metter who has directed nothing noteworthy unless you are a big fan of "Police Academy: Mission to Moscow" (1994) and it shows. Visually there is nothing special about "Back to School". The strength of the movie lies in its screenplay, which was co-written by Harold Ramis from an idea Mr. Dangerfield had a hand in and the performance given by Mr. Dangerfield. Although Rodney Dangerfield is not given writing credit, without question he wrote his own lines because I have heard him deliver these lines in his stand-up act. When speaking of the fact he has been married for five years he says he can't believe it. It seems like yesterday and you know what a lousy day yesterday was! Or when he gets the nerve to ask an attractive teacher (Sally Kellerman) out on a date, she keeps refusing him telling him she is unavailable because she has classes to teach. Finally Thornton tells her to call him whenever she has no class. I guess you have to hear him deliver the lines in order for it to be funny.
"Back to School" is an entertaining movie carried by Rodney Dangerfield, who for one of the few times in his career, was given a full character to play which built on his persona and took advantage of his gifts as a comedian. It's no masterpiece but it doesn't need to be one. You just got to give Rodney Dangerfield his respect.