Most helpful positive review
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Rodney Dangerfield's best film, with special thanks to Ned Beatty and Kurt Vonnegut
on 5 March 2008
There's wide agreement that the three greatest American film comedies are It Happened One Night from 1934, The Lady Eve from 1941 and 1986's Back to School. Some might quibble that It Happened One Night is no match for Miss Congeniality when it comes to female snorting or that The Lady Eve doesn't have the consistent belly laughs of Turner & Hooch, nor does it have a lovable, slobbering dog unless one counts Henry Fonda. Back to School, however, remains one of a kind.
But seriously, folks...I like this movie a lot. It's not just that the film pokes hard at complacent academia, or that there are a string of great comedy moments given to us by several first-rate actors. Mainly, there's Rodney Dangerfield, himself an idiosyncratic comedian who at times can be easy to get tired of. As Thornton Melon, an up-from-his-boot-straps wealthy clothier -- he owns the Tall & Fat stores -- who signs up as a college student determined to help his wimpish son become popular, Dangerfield is something else. He's not just the loud, wisecracking, eye-popping comedian. Dangerfield gives Melon a layer of good-natured intentions, likeability and even a little lost pathos that is eventually quite endearing.
Some parts of the movie don't work too well for me, mainly the parts of the storyline that involve Melon's son, played by Keith Gordon, his son's pal, played by Robert Downey, Jr., and his love interest, played by Sally Kellerman. Gordon is wimpish enough but, in my view, not very interesting. Downey is little more than an over-the-top exaggeration, and Kellerman puts me off with her above-the-salt manner and accent. But to compensate there is a great comedy turn by Ned Beatty as the obsequious university dean, Dean Martin, a man who knows endowments are worth more than an unseemly attention to student entry requirements. He'd be right at home in the Ivy League. Sam Kinison is terrific as a crackpot right-wing professor of history. Adrienne Barbeau is amusing and unlikable as Melon's high-spending wife who likes to show off her Klimt. And Paxton Whitehead as an over-civilized, professor of marketing with an aquiline nose can give us all useful lessons in condescension. The set up and follow-through with the Kurt Vonnegut joke is a classic. Part of the joy of the movie is watching how Melon deals with these people.
Still, what makes Back to School work is Rodney Dangerfield, his way with comedy, his delivery and his timing. I'll leave the movie where it started, with Thornton Melon's new television ad for Tall & Fat stores. I hope you can hear Dangerfield in your mind..."Hi there. Are you a large person? Pleasantly plump? A little on the hefty side, perhaps? Well, let's face it: Are you FAT? When you go jogging, do you leave potholes? When you make love, do you have to give directions? At the zoo, do the elephants throw YOU peanuts? Do you look at a menu and say 'OK'? Well, now you can eat all you want, because at Thornton Melon's "Tall & Fat" stores, we've got you covered. That's right. Fine woolen, and woolen-blend suits and sport coats, in all the larger sizes -- husky, stout, extra-stout, and the new Hindenburg line. And for you ladies we have caftans, muumuus, and our own exclusive A-frame in all colors and patterns. Yes, we have miles and miles of fabric. So take it from me, Thornton Melon, if you want to look thin, you hang out with fat people."
The DVD disc I have has wide screen on one side, pan-and-scan on the other, with no extras. It looks just fine.
(And for the record, I'm also fond of Miss Congeniality and Turner & Hooch.)