Problematic Movies of the 80s | Back to School (1986)

Problematic Movies of the 80s | Back to School (1986)

As I continue to dive into the films I remember as favorites of my coming of age, I continue to be surprised. Some, while not mean-spirited, definitely violate the mandate of 2018 culture to root out the messages of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and general tendency to use marginalized misfortune as fodder for laughs. Then there are the movies I remember laughing myself sick over and, for some reason, still make me laugh.

There’s just something about classic Rodney Dangerfield that works for me. While Caddyshack is off this list (been covered a thousand times and I’ve seen it at least half that), Dangerfield is still among my favorite parts of it. Few comedians today can make me guffaw out loud as frequently.

I recognize that a lot of his humor is grounded in what we see today as retrograde insult comedy. Perhaps it’s his quick and constant self deprecation or his attitude and delivery but an off color fat joke or an old guy leering at a young woman quip coming from Dangerfield is just fucking funny to me.

Prior to re-watching his playing essentially the same character from Caddyshack but with the added heart of a devoted father underneath his nouveau riche boob all I could recall about the film was that Rodney was a diver, Robert Downey Jr. was in there somewhere, and that Oingo Boingo is actually in the movie as Oingo Boingo.

Back to School

Written by Steven Kampmann, Will Porter, Peter Torokvei, and Harold Ramis
Directed by Alan Metter

“Are you a large person? Pleasantly plump? A little on the hefty side, perhaps? Or let’s face it — are you fat?

When you go jogging, do you make potholes? When you make love, do you have to give directions? At the zoo, do elephants throw you peanuts?

Do you look at a menu and say OK?”

Thus starts the commercial for Thornton Melon’s Tall & Fat Stores. The tag for his commercial?
“If you wanna look thin, you hang out with fat people!”

With outrageous and terrible one-liners like those, cameos by Sam Kinison, Severn Darden, Danny Elfman and Kurt Vonnegut, Sally Kellerman as a love interest, Burt Young as Melon’s tough guy valet, Back to School is an embarrassment of riches in a dumb but heartfelt movie.

The movie opens in flashback. Thornton is crummy at school, would rather just work with his tailor father and is admonished that education is the most important thing. Jump cut through the credits — he doesn’t go to college, he works for his father, he expands and creates his Tall & Fat stores and is now ridiculously wealthy.

His son (a typically lackluster Keith Gordon) isn’t doing so well in college but it has to do with his social game rather than his smarts. Melon tells him that education is essential. The son quips “easy for you to say — you don’t have to do it.” And the game is afoot.

The movie is really just an excuse for Dangerfield to make fun of college, of students, and mostly himself as he tries to finally go to college. He buys his way into being the oldest freshman in the history of the university and immediately makes an enemy of the snooty economics prof. He sees Sally Kellerman read poetry and falls in love. He does his best to help his son despite mucking things up a bit. And he reveals that he was once a stunt diver in Atlantic City as a set up for his triumphant Triple Lindy in the final diving meet.

Dumb but fun.

AND we get Oingo Boingo, a Danny Elfman score, a young baby fat faced Downey Jr. essentially playing a less intelligent Tony Stark in college, Billy Zabka (Johnny Lawrence from The Karate Kid) as less the bad guy and more the douchebag guy, and fucking Kurt Vonnegut!


Once again, no black characters. I mean, what did black kids watch in the 80s that gave them any sense of representation? I think I’m starting to really comprehend the mania about Black Panther. I suppose they get some points for making the tough man-servant a white guy rather than casting a black actor as a subservient pleeb but C’MON 80s! Get with the program!


Yes, Dangerfield gets to letch around, making rimshot sexual innuendos about busty women who could be his grandchildren but while it’s objectification at its finest, it’s never rapey or anything but harmless. There is one completely gratuitous moment where he wanders into a sorority house looking for his son and accidentally peeks in the shower giving the teenage audience their required titty shot. For the most part, it’s just a 65-year old bug-eyed comedian making dirty jokes with the full consent and participation of the ladies.

“What a woman!”

“Dad, she is the teacher.”

“I know. I like teachers. You do something wrong, they make you do it over again.”

We get a moment, during his date with the aforementioned teacher (Kellerman) that made me stop and re-watch it a few times:

“I dunno. I can’t figure women out. Today they’re independent. They only think about themselves. During sex, Vanessa, she used to scream out her own name.”

“I think it’s the men who are different. Ever since the women’s movement, most men I meet go out of their way to show you how sensitive they are. Before they were too macho and now they’re too soft. You all want us to know you can cry.”

“Now with women I never cry. Never. I beg.”


This one blip of a scene managed to sum up my personal quest for finding my own definition of manhood. Finding the balance between too macho and too soft. Current polemics will say that the best men around are the sensitive allies but the guys who actually get to have sex with more than their sad, grasping paw are a bit more stoic and rough. Add to that the fact that while there was plenty of objectification of the female body back in the olden days of the 1980s, on Instagram today, there are more than a few women making careers off of objectifying themselves.

I’m certainly not saying that there are any big answers to the questions of gender power dynamics contained in a Rodney Dangerfield vehicle, it is notable that that three lines of dialogue say more about the concepts of what makes masculinity difficult to master than any ten movies made this past year.


Yup. Still funny as hell and I’d happily watch it again. One point off for the lack of any characters of color cuz gimme a break with that, OK?


Scale of 1 to 10
1 = Classic
10 = Burn all VHS copies of it

Back to School gets an 2

Next Up: Blame It On Rio (1983)

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