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Entries in Back to School [1986] (1)


Back to School (1986)

Trumped-up Melon

"When logic fails, don't lose your head. You just turn to me instead. Hold on, baby, now here we go back to school."

--Jude Cole, Back to School

Last week, J. Matthew Turner's video thesis "The Karate Kid: Daniel is the REAL Bully" became a minor Internet sensation. Yes, many have pointed out that How I Met Your Mother covered similar territory years ago, but the sitcom didn't do as deep a dive into the sociopathy of beloved 80s icon Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) as Turner did. It's not so much an amusing piece as a head-scratching one, an off-angle examination of fictitious events that many of us grew up believing were heroic--but which come off as downright creepy when switching sneakers with the "villain".

Coincidentally, I revisited Back to School a few nights ago, thanks to a rabbit hole of nostalgia that began with my son starting kindergarten and ended with an earworm of Jude Cole's title song. I hadn't watched the movie in twenty years, but it was such a childhood staple that random scenes still pop to mind like the Triple Dent Gum commercial from Inside Out. As it turns out, I really didn't know Back to School at all, and that Rodney Dangerfield's Thornton Melon character--once a hilariously flippant idol--has a lot in common with people I've grown to despise.

There's a lot to love about Alan Metter's film. A clever twist on the prevalent snobs-versus-slobs comedies that dominated the 80s, Back to School tweaks convention by making its chief institution-thwarting screw-up a wealthy businessman. Food-and-fun-obsessed Thornton Melon gained national prominence with a chain of "Tall & Fat" stores, and has parlayed his success into other ventures such as real estate and toys ("Melon Patch Kids are not adopted--they're abandoned!"). On the down side, Thornton must contend with a cheating second wife, an estranged son who's away at college, and an endless rotation of dinner parties attended by well-to-do stiffs who likely cannot relate to his own humble beginnings.

One evening, Thornton snaps and heads to the fictitious, picturesque Grand Lakes University. On arrival, he learns that his son, Jason (Keith Gordon) is not the star swimmer or ace academic he'd been led to believe. The out-of-place teen is one the verge of dropping out, in fact, when his father decides the best way to help is to enroll in the school. Thornton's boisterous, cavalier, say-what-comes-to-mind demeanor makes him an instant success among the students The faculty are divided between those who appreciate a shaking up of stuffy tradition (Sally Kellerman's hip Lit professor, Diane Turner), and those who believe stuffy tradition must be maintained at all costs (Paxton Whitehead's Economics professor, Philip Barbay).

Barbay's protestations to the Dean (Ned Beatty) are drowned out just as surely as the subplot involving Jason's journey from bullied towel boy to dream-chasing ladies'-man. This is Thornton's show, through and through. Yes, Jason gets up the nerve to ask out Brainy Babe on Campus, Valerie Desmond (Terry Farrell), and also to confront snooty swim team captain Chaz (William Zabka, also the ostensible heavy from The Karate Kid's), but these scenes feels like commercial breaks in a standup special.

And don't look too close at this love triangle, or you'll find it obtuse: maybe I've been jaded by age, but I can't understand what Valerie sees in Chaz, what Chaz sees in Valerie, or why Jason sees either as an intimidating force--aside from purely superficial concerns (Sweet, Hot Girl; Mean, Buff Guy; Scrawny Nerd). The actors do quite well with the limited material, but that material feels less integral than it does like mass-appeal desperation.

The problem with handing the show over to Dangerfield is that Thornton Melon isn't the easiest protagonist to get behind. His intentions may be noble, but his actions are indistinguishable from the kind of person Chaz might grow into if he ever develops a sense of humor. His entitlement compels him to not only buy an unearned Grand Lakes admission, but to disrupt every single class with jokes and tirades about how his teachers know nothing of the real world. He enlists his driver/bodyguard, Lou (Burt Young), to create a diversion during Registration Day so that he and his son can get first pick of their classes.* Melon also recruits the local police to bring cases of beer to his raucous campus party (which, I'm sure, had a strict ID-checking apparatus in place) and hires professional scientists, astrophysicists, and Kurt Vonnegut himself to write all of his papers.

Melon's casual corruption naturally creeps into the behavior of those around him, even muddying Grand Lakes' victory during the film's climactic swim meet. When Chaz fakes an injury to torpedo his own team's chances of winning, the coach (M. Emmet Walsh) enlists Thornton to compete in his place. In addition to being a successful businessman, Melon was once a professional diver--a fact the coach doesn't mention to the judges when lying about having misplaced the form with his alternate's information. I'm pretty sure that enlisting a seasoned pro to rig a college sporting event is a bad guys' tactic. Is there any doubt Thornton (or at least Jason) would have called "bullshit" if the rival school had pulled the same stunt?

Taken by themselves, these episodes are very funny, but as a whole, they speak to a warped culture of influence that I'm not sure Thornton would (or could) endorse if his own actions were laid out before him. He constantly tells Jason (as his father often told him) that, "in life, you can do anything you wanna do"--unless, Back to School subconsciously tells us, your interests don't align with wisecracking rich guys whose popularity hinges on buying everyone textbooks and booze.

Thank God for Sally Kellerman. Her Professor Turner is the key to helping Thornton understand that there's more to life than cheating and skirting inconvenient responsibilities. She's also one of the few characters who stands up to Thornton,** though her free-spirit demeanor becomes a tad questionable later in the film. She's dating Philip, you see, before Thornton shows up. She's so taken by his wit and charisma that she stands her boyfriend up to spend the night with Thornton. Thanks to screenplay conventions, she becomes indignant when finding Thornton in a hot tub full of girls, and then take him back when he professes...whatever comes closest to love in his mind.

The other Internet sensation that Back to School reminded me of last week was Presidential hopeful and walking 80s hangover Donald Trump. Brash, opinionated, and concerned only with his own (huge, fantastic, amazing) orbit, it's hard to accept him as anything but a cartoon character--a very wealthy and entitled cartoon character. He's an aspirational figure, for sure, appealing to the poor who want his opportunities and to the rich who want their opportunities protected from the poor at all costs. He's Thornton Melon, minus the jokes and zero-hour self-awareness.

*Lou also throws the first punch in a bar brawl that sees him beating the crap out of the football team--a fight, it should be noticed, that started when one of Jason's friends doused everyone at the pep rally in green paint.

**And the only female character whom the film draws with a fine-haired brush. Valerie is a passive love object, and the others are scantily clad coeds--one of whom Thornton accidentally encounters in the shower. She's understandably terrified of the leering old man poking around her sorority house, and I'd wager that dread is compounded when, after jokingly apologizing for his error, he pops his head back in the stall and yells, "You're perfect!"