A Look Back: “Back to School”

I remember when I saw the movie “Accepted,” thinking it could be described as “Back to School” meets “Camp Nowhere.” Now looking back, “Accepted” seems very dated, and “Back to School” seems positively antediluvian. How time flies.

In “Back to School,” Keith Gordon plays the son of Rodney Dangerfield, who isn’t having a great first semester of college. After failing both to make the diving team and get into a fraternity, he decides the logical next course is dropping out. But Rodney, whose character is a crass but loving dad, as well as a self-made millionaire businessman, decides to encourage his kid to stay in school by enrolling himself. When he learns the truth, he’s disappointed in Keith, but doesn’t dwell on it. (“You don’t lie to me. You lie to girls,” he instructs him.) Having chosen this plan, Rodney wastes no time renovating his son’s double (which he shares with his quirky friend, played by Robert Downey Jr.) and installing a hot tub to boot. He throws his weight around to get what he wants and is not above resorting to devious means, such as suggesting to a jam packed bookstore of students that Bruce Springsteen is outside. But he’s generous with his wealth, too, hosting the mother of all parties with Oingo Boingo (very hip in 1986) and putting the purchases of everyone in said bookstore on his tab. You see, he’s likeable because – life lesson – he’s comfortable with himself, something the son has to learn. But maybe Rodney has a few things he can learn from his son, too.

Rodney soon gets a crush on an English professor (Sally Kellerman), who already has a snooty boyfriend.  Rodney asks Sally if she can help him “straighten out his Longfellow,” which leaves her distinctly uncharmed, but eventually, he begins to grow on her.  Rodney’s approach to his other subjects is unorthodox to say the least, but he does know more about running a successful business than the economics professor.  However, he slacks off in his other classes, leading to a situation in which he’s eventually in academic hot water.

Instead of the Big Game, there is the Big Meet.  Early on, it’s revealed that Rodney was once a champion diver and performed a legendary move called the “Triple Lindy.”  The coach gives Keith another shot, once he learns who his dad is, and this time he makes it.  To spice things up, there’s a rival (on the same team no less) who’s blond, preppy, goes by Chas and is played by William Zabka, so you know from the start he is evil personified.  Diving is not a very exciting sport for the spectator/viewer (unless you’re a fan), but there’s a great scene in which Robert tries to sabotage the other school’s team. In addition, for drama, there’s also the Big Exam, for which Rodney studies to a montage and in the process, learns from his son about the satisfactions of actually mastering the material.

After both Rodney and Keith triumph, we fast forward to Rodney’s graduation ceremony.  He gives a speech and tells the grads, “Stay in college!”  Also: “Look out for number one.  But don’t step in Number Two.”  Not the most eloquent and inspiring advice, but certainly true, as I discovered after college and long after I first watched this movie.






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