Keep Your Damn Hands Off Back To School

There have been plenty of older movies – some classic, some not – that have been revived in various ways, whether straight up remake, a reboot that starts things over with a fresh start or even a sequel. MGM is taking a slightly different approach, taking the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School and turning it into a reality series.

The movie follows self-made retail millionaire Thornton Melon (Dangerfield) as he decides the best way to spend more time with his son Jason (Keith Gordon) is to go to college with him. The laughs come from the elder Melon, in his 60s and more comfortable in rough and tumble negotiations with vendors than in a classroom, failing to fit in on campus while also using his money to cut through various forms of academic red tape.

It is silly. It is wonderful. And the news that such a perfect, pristine thing is being sullied feels like a very personal attack against me.

Back in high school, a friend would invite a few of us up to her family’s cottage in Wisconsin a couple times each summer. We’d go out on her dad’s boat, eat her family’s food and otherwise hang out. That included watching a bunch of movies, and since this was before home video ownership was a mainstream thing most of those came from a local independent video rental store, the town being too remote for Blockbuster, which was still expanding at the time.

Back to School was one that was almost a mortal lock to be rented over these weekends, along with Real Genius. We knew all the best lines, laughed at all the familiar bits and repeatedly reveled in Dangerfield’s antics. Then we’d make sure the tape was rewound and bring it back to the video store.

So you’ll forgive me if the idea of doing anything other than celebrating the original, featuring an early Robert Downey Jr. performance and wonderful turns from Sally Kellerman, Burt Young, Ned Beatty and of course Sam Kinison, is slightly disappointing. Back to School is such a specific favorite, one that carries with it memories of a time that carries with it a lot of emotional baggage. The only thing that could be worse is if Paramount touched Real Genius.

One problem is that an unscripted show about a parent surprising their kid by showing up as a classmate at their college focuses just on that relationship. It’s key, sure, but it removes the character types played by those supporting actors. Part of Jason’s relationship with his father includes his relationship with Lou (Young), Thornton’s driver and body man. And part of Thornton’s experience in learning to relate to his son as an independent adult is the romance he develops with Dr. Turner (Kellerman).

Without all that, it’s just about clueless parents and embarrassed teenagers. It’s the least interesting part of the story. Which means, as is the case with most remakes or reimaginings, there’s no real reason to bring the Back to School name into this. It could have stood on its own and not lost anything while also not killing a part of my soul.

Interesting follow-up to the story of regular rentals: Several years ago I was in Tahoe with the rest of my Voce Communications colleagues on the agency’s annual Retreat. Staff was always placed in a bunch of rented houses, five or six to a residence. This one year after we arrived we were looking around and saw the house had a VCR and a bunch of old tapes, one of which was Back to School. With a few hours to kill before dinner, I declared “This is happening, you can either join me or leave,” a rare show of forceful and unquestionable intent. No one else I was staying with had seen it, so for the next 96 minutes we all enjoyed some classic Dangerfield, from his arguments with wife Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau) right through Melon’s successful execution of The Triple Lindy.

It was a magical moment.

Back off, MGM. This one is personal.

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