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Film / Back to School

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Thornton Melon's got it good: he has an extremely successful line of "Tall & Fat" men's clothing stores that he built up from a small New York clothier shop, and a beloved son who's off making grades, making friends and earning victories for his diving team at college. Thornton's also married to a shrewish, unfaithful wife who- *Whirrp!* wait, nevermind that last part.

Newly separated from his shrewish, unfaithful wife, Thornton decides to head off to the university to visit his son, Jason (Keith Gordon). Once he gets there, Jason has to spill the beans on how college life is working out: he lied about the grades, he has no friends on the diving team because he's being bullied by (who else) William Zabka, and he's about to drop out. Thornton can't quite convince him not to, seeing how he never went to school and things turned out fine.

With that, Thornton decides -what the hell- he's enrolling too! He gets in good with the Dean by addressing all of his concerns with a big, fat donation, and before long becomes the #1 party animal on campus. Just a few things stand to ruin Thornton's fun, though: a stuffy economics professor who doesn't appreciate Thornton buying his way through school, and a son who's beginning to develop the same gripe. Fortunately, Thornton also falls for a beautiful and very intelligent Poetry professor who sees that he can excel in his studies if he makes a real effort at it, but will he?

While perhaps not as well-known as Caddyshack, Back to School is one of Rodney Dangerfield's funniest films and is definitely worth checking out for any fan of 80s comedy or the man himself. The other most notable thing about this film is that Derek Savage (yes, that Derek Savage) appears as an extra.

This film includes examples of:

  • A Minor Kidroduction: A young Thornton in 1940 comes home from school to show his dad his lousy report card, setting up both Thorn's poor academic track record and his rather fraught relationship with higher learning (he succeeded in spite of being poorly educated, but comes to realize that his father was warning him how disappointed he'll feel to see his son make the same mistake).note 
  • Actor Allusion: One of the last shots in the opening montage is of Rodney Dangerfield golfing. This was taken directly from Caddyshack. In fact, Thornton Melon is a variation of Al Czervik himself.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: Jason generally disapproves of his father's antics, but even he is cracking up at Thornton's secretary taking notes next to him.
  • And Then I Said: "And she said, 'Let's do it! The room's already paid for!'"
  • Anti-Role Model: Thornton's decidedly anti-inspirational graduation speech.
    Thornton: And so, to all you graduates, as you go out into the world my advice to you is... don't go! It's rough out there! Move back with your parents. Let them worry about it!
  • Arc Words: "Without an education, a man's got nothing."
  • Artistic License: Shining a light in a student diver's face would get you immediately expelled and arrested. It's lethally dangerous.
    • The college is shown as having only one fraternity. All US universities have several.
  • Artistic License – Economics: Generally entry-level economics classes tend to treat econ as a pure social science and don't work towards the practical implications for business so cleanly as portrayed in this film.
  • As Himself: Kurt Vonnegut and Oingo Boingo.
  • Back to School: Thornton goes back to college as a successful, middle-aged man to lead his son by example.
  • Blatant Lies:
    • "Is the work you turned in your own?" "I can't lie to ya, Dean Martin. *Beat* ...Yes it is."
    • Thornton walks in on a woman taking a shower and claims that he didn't see anything. He then peeks back, staring bug-eyed at her.
      Thornton: You're perfect!
    • At the dorm party, Diane walks in on him cavorting with several young women in a hot tub. Thorn's immediate cover? "Say hello to my nieces!" Points for quick thinking, but Diane obviously isn't fooled by his excuse.
  • Bowdlerise:
    • As usual, the TV cut includes some of the harsher language dubbed over. One example:
    Thornton: All right, I'll say it: 'Cause Truman was too much of a stupidNote  wimp to let MacArthur go in there and blow out those Commie pipsqueaks!Note 
    • Also occurs in the climactic quiz scene, after Thornton recites a Dylan Thomas poem:
    Diane: Thornton, what does that poem mean to you?
    Thornton: It means... I don't take nothin'Note  from no one.
  • British Stuffiness: The only member of staff who turns his nose to Thornton's antics is the snooty British professor who teaches economics, rightfully finding Thornton's method of getting into college to be a slap in the face to the hard working students who got in properly and thinking of Thornton himself to be crude and boorish.
  • But Liquor Is Quicker:
    • "Say when!" "Right after this drink!"
    • "If we finish this bottle of wine, you won't have to beg."
  • But Not Too Foreign: Nothing is really made of it, but the flashback at the beginning reveals that Thornton's given surname was Meloni and he came from an Italian background, but he changed it somewhere along the way.
  • The Cameo: Kurt Vonnegut appears as himself to write chicago style format essay on Kurt Vonnegut. It gets Thornton an F.
  • Cool Car: Thornton's Lincoln limo, complete with a TV!
    • Philip's vintage 1945 MG convertible counts too. It's on the poster!
  • Cool Teacher: Diane, especially in comparison to Phillip. As just one example, she joined the students at the mid-term party.
  • Cover Version: "Twist and Shout" plays in the film, and it's sung by someone other than The Beatles (while they didn't create the song, their rendition was arguably the most famous). Rodney Dangerfield, who sang part of the song in the movie, also performed an entire cover version of it for a music video with scenes from the movie.
  • Dagwood Sandwich: In one memorable scene, Thornton makes himself an enormous sandwich out of various Hors D'oeuvres, consisting of a hollowed-out loaf of Italian bread and a big dish each of Cocktail Meatballs, Spanakopita and Devilled Eggs. He even has someone nearby help him cut it afterward!
    Thornton: (as he walks off with the resulting sandwich) Comin' out. Comin' through, hot stuff!
  • Deadpan Snarker: Watching Rodney Dangerfield and Robert Downey Jr. on the same screen is like watching Master and Protege.
  • Dean Bitterman: The Dean of the University, "Dean Martin" is an aversion of this trope, as he's an ineffectual money grubber who allows Thornton to bribe his way through school. Phillip makes a good stand-in, though.
  • Death of the Author: An In-Universe reference when Diane and Kurt Vonnegut disagree on the meaning of Vonnegut's work.
  • Divorce Assets Conflict: When Vanessa tells Thornton she wants a divorce, he gleefully serves her the papers right out of his coat pocket. She sneers at him that it won't be that easy and that it'll cost him, intending to take a good chunk of his fortune. This is averted when Thornton proceeds to pull out a series of Polaroids displaying her rampant infidelity which renders her unable to collect even a penny of his wealth. Knowing that she's been beat, she angrily storms off.
  • The Dragon: Thornton's best friend/chauffeur/bodyguard Lou is an easygoing version of this. He's a genuinely nice guy but can kick serious ass when Thornton needs asses kicked.
  • Epic Fail: Thornton hadn't done his homework, leading to this exchange in class the next day:
    Diane: Mr. Melon, how would you characterize The Great Gatsby?
    Thornton: Well The Great Gatsby, he was... great! (class laughs)
    Diane: ...See me after class.
  • Fanservice Extra:
    • When Rodney accidentally walks in on actress Leslie Huntly in the middle of her Shower Scene. Dangerfield and "Coed #1" have a brief Shower of Awkward played purely for Fanservice.
      Thornton: Take it easy, honey! I didn't see a thing!" (throws open shower curtain and stares bug-eyed at her) You're perfect!
    • There's also Bubbles, which Thornton says is the only thing missing from the hot tub.
  • The Film of the Book: Discussed when Diane has a tutoring session with Thornton:
    Diane: Surely a man of your age and experience must have read some of the things on my list. What about Macbeth?
    Thornton: I saw the movie. Orson Welles. Great actor, big actor. He was a Tall and Fat customer for years.
    Diane: How about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?
    Thornton: I saw the movie. Burl Ives. Great actor, extra stout. He was a customer, too.
    Diane: A Streetcar Named Desire.
    Thornton: Great movie. Marlon Brando. He wasn't that big then, but he ballooned up nicely. I'd say, pound for pound, our finest American actor.
    Diane: Don't you ever read?
    Thornton: Who has time? I see the movie. I'm in and out in two hours.
    Diane: Oh, Thornton, don't you see? The reason you want to read these works is so you can experience them for yourself, so you can share the thoughts and feelings of the writer, without the interference of your actor and director and professor's point of view getting in the way. To truly share and understand the common feelings of all mankind, the feelings of being alive.
  • Good Parents: Thornton's father in 1940 is none too happy about Thornton's bad grades, but rather than use corporal punishment as was standard at the time, he instead gives Thornton a pep-talk about how important having an education is. However, it does take Thornton 46 years to get the hint.
  • Head-Tiltingly Kinky:
    Phillip: What did he want?
    Diane: Oh! What do ALL men want?
    Phillip: He wants you to dress up as Wonder Woman, tie him up with a golden lariat and force him to tell the truth?
    • Thornton: Here's you and Giorgio in the guest room. A little classy, isn't it? Here's you and Giorgio in the rumpus room. Another classy one, huh? Ooh, this one, I can't figure out. There's you, there's Giorgio... What's with the midget over here?
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Thornton and Lou. They've been friends since childhood, always have each other's back, and nothing comes between them.
  • Honest Advisor: Lou is this to Thornton. He doesn't mince words about his dislike for Thornton's new wife, or if he "looks fat" in his new commercial.
  • Informed Flaw: It's never made clear why Jason did so poorly in the swim tryouts the prior semester given how impeccable his diving is during the movie. Maybe it was just nerves.
  • Insult Backfire: Chas tries to get a burn in on Jason by calling him a Nouveau Riche fleeb who'll turn out just like his father. Jason doesn't miss a beat with his retort:
    "God, I hope so... because I happen to love the guy."
  • It's All About Me: Thorn humorously remarks that his ex Vanessa was so self-absorbed that she would scream her own name during sex.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Professor Phillip may be a snobbish, stuck up jerk but he's not wrong to point out that Thornton bribed his way into the college.
  • Karma Houdini: Chas is never punished for his douchebaggery.
  • Large Ham: In true Rodney Dangerfield fashion Thornton is this to a T.
  • Naturalized Name: Thornton's birth name was the Italian "Meloni." He changed it to "Melon."
  • Nouveau Riche: The Self-Made Man Thornton blows through money being a party animal on campus and frequently shows that he's willing to simply buy whatever he desires rather than earn it.
  • Obvious Stunt Double: Rodney Dangerfield starts a dive on top of a high board, but when the camera cuts to the stunt man actually doing the dive, his toupee flops up to reveal it's not Rodney.
  • Oh, Crap!: The jocks threatening Thornton have this reaction when Lou crushes a metal napkin dispenser with one hand.
  • Pint-Sized Powerhouse: Lou is not a particularly tall man; Burt Young is 5'8. He's still capable of delivering a hefty beatdown.
  • Plagiarism in Fiction: Thornton Melon turns in an essay about a book by Kurt Vonnegut, written by Kurt Vonnegut himself, which he passes off as his own. The English professor gives him an F, telling him that whoever wrote the essay "doesn't know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut." Later on, Thornton gets called in by the dean of the college, with accusations that Thornton has committed academic fraud by turning in homework done by someone else.
  • Precision F-Strike: Thornton tells Kurt Vonnegut on the phone to go fuck himself after the plagiarized essay on Kurt's own book gets Thornton a failing grade and he responds by putting a stop payment on a check he wrote to Kurt (Vonnegut evidently said it to him first).
  • Product Placement: Due to Rodney Dangerfield's contractual obligations with the Miller Brewing Company and his appearances in Miller Lite beer commercials at the time, only Miller beer was allowed to be shown in certain scenes (when Dangerfield goes to get a beer out of the refrigerator during the party at his house and during the large party at the college when the police arrive with extra beer).
  • Punny Name: The Dean's last name is Martin; Thornton cracks up every time he hears it.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: See the entry in Your Costume Needs Work.
  • Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony: Thornton Melon has a ground-breaking ceremony for the new school building that the university would open up in exchange for giving him admission to take courses. At the ceremony, Thornton flings some dirt and it lands on the head of a member of the university's faculty, particularly the one who criticized Thornton buying his way into the university.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Thornton gets into school by buying the campus a new building, and his attitude towards his academic workload is to just hire someone else to do it.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Jason doesn't subscribe to his dad's approach to higher learning, and becomes very upset when Thorn gets his underlings to do his homework, too:
    Jason: "I wanna write that paper, I'm gonna write that paper, because that's why I'm taking astronomy: to learn something! But you're not gonna learn a goddamn thing if you've got everybody doing your work for you!"
  • Self-Deprecation: Mostly averted, believe it or not. Rodney Dangerfield actually avoids using his signature shtick throughout the movie.
    • There is one notable instance of it, though:
      Thorn: "The shape I'm in, you could donate my body to science fiction."
  • Self-Made Man: Melon, the son of a poor Italian tailor, created a successful clothing line.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: History teacher Prof. Turguson, played by Sam Kinison. Watch as he informs his students on the reason for ending The Vietnam War. Then gets Thornton to state what he thinks is the reason the US pulled out from The Korean War.
  • Shout-Out: The opening montage shows Rodney playing golf in his Al Czervik getup.
    • At the end of his phone call to Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Thornton says "Next time, I'll call Robert Ludlum!" The best-selling spy novelist was Rodney's neighbor and a close friend in real life.
  • Shower of Awkward: Thornton unknowingly walks into a female sorority house when he's looking for Jason's dorm room and accidentally walks in on a student showering. He quickly shuts the curtain on her, claiming he didn't see anything, but briefly opens it back up and says, "You're perfect."
  • Slobs vs. Snobs: A rare occasion when the slob is wealthier than the snobs: Thornton is a Nouveau Riche Self-Made Man whose irreverent personality runs against the snobby culture of academia.
  • Soapbox Sadie: Subverted by Derek. The few times he starts ranting on social issues it becomes clear a few words in that he's just bullshitting for laughs.
  • Stealth Pun: "Why don't you call me some time when you have no class?"
  • Technician Versus Performer: This is the core of the conflict between Thornton and Professor Phillip, as it reflects on academic teaching vs. real world experience. As a professor, Phillip's class is based mainly on theoretical principles of business. Thornton, a self-made retailer, explains the more creative business practices and the shady backroom deals that happen in the real world.
  • Tiny Guy, Huge Girl: Jason is quite a few inches shorter than his squeeze, Valerie.
  • Uncle Pennybags: Thorn is a fine example. Even though he's buying his way through school, he's really cool about it. At one point, he gives a campus officer a couple of thousand bucks to help put his kids through school; when the officer tells him he doesn't have children, Thorn shrugs and gives him more money to get himself some kids.
  • Villains Never Lie: Chas tells Jason that his dad bribed the coach to get him on the diving team, and Jason believes it immediately. To Jason, it sounds enough like something his dad might do, but you'd think hearing it from the one guy in school that you know hates your guts might send up a red flag or two.
  • Vomit Discretion Shot: The drunk student.
  • When All You Have Is a Hammer…: Thornton has very little formal education, just a lifetime of business experience at his "Tall & Fat" stores. When Diane names some literature she hopes he has read, he can only relate it all to movies made from that literature starring portly actors. In his defense, most of what she names qualifies as Mainstream Obscurity, and the fact that he has seen these films (they themselves probably qualify just as much as the books) is impressive in and of itself
  • Your Costume Needs Work: Thornton commissions Kurt Vonnegut to write an interpretation of Slaughterhouse-Five for a literature class. When Dangerfield turns it in as his own work, the professor gives it an F, saying "I don't know who wrote this essay, but he obviously doesn't know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut."