DVD REVIEWS: ‘Back to School’ and ‘The Graduate’
YATES: ‘Back to School’
It is classics week, so with a nod to my writing partner as she begins graduate school, we’re going with a back to school theme. I initially planned on reviewing the little-known ’80s film “Happy Together,” starring Patrick Dempsey and Helen Slater, but unfortunately it is so little-known that I couldn’t get my hands on a copy this week. Plan B offers up another ’80s classic that represents this week’s theme within the title — 1986’s “Back to School.” Rodney Dangerfield on a college campus in the mid-80s… what could possibly go wrong?
In an effort to keep his fledgling son Jason (Keith Gordon) in college, wealthy clothing tycoon Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) decides to go back to school himself and enrolls at Jason’s college. Thornton quickly becomes the big man on campus by throwing big parties and living a lavish lifestyle, but his relationship with Jason begins to fall apart when he begins using his money to gain an unfair advantage in school. Only when faced with the threat of oral final exams does Thornton begin to figure out how to truly succeed — in college, and with his son.
“Back to School” may set the record for most appearances of cheesy 80’s film staples. Gregarious and quirky anti-hero protagonist — check (Dangerfield). Zany sidekick with wacky colored hair — check (Rober Downey Jr.). Handsome frat boy bully from an affluent family (awesome 80’s antagonist William Zabka a.k.a. Johnny from “Karate Kid”), fictional university athletic team (the Grand Lakes Hooters dive team), and classic studying montage — check, check and triple check. If you’re looking to write a thesis on 1980s cinematic comedy contrivances, look no further than this film.
“Back to School” features a host of talented actors playing minor or ancillary characters. The late Sam Kinison shines as an intense history professor, Ned Beatty nails the role of flaky college dean David Martin (get it, Dean Martin?), and Burt Young plays a familiar role as Thornton’s gruff caretaker. Sally Kellerman is perfectly cast as the sultry, mature literature professor, as is Paxton Whitehead as the stuffy business professor.
Unfortunately most of the film’s comedy comes from the same source in Dangerfield’s wacky antics. His one-liners quickly wear thin, and director Allen Metter doesn’t take advantage of the talent at his disposal. There are some heartfelt moments interspersed throughout the movie, and it would have been nice to see those moments as more of a focus in lieu of Thornton’s zany behavior. The film briefly hints at a back story involving the death of Thornton’s first wife as the catalyst for his eccentric behavior, but it is never revisited. Robert Downey Jr. shines as Jason’s anti-establishment sidekick, but much like Thornton, his character motivations are never revealed.
Perhaps the flat characters, bad one-liners and cheesy plots are just part of what helps make 80’s comedies so endearing. “Back to School” certainly doesn’t take itself seriously and is unflinching in its own absurdity. There is over the top, and then there is Dangerfield’s epic slow-motion triple lindy dive at the film’s climax that redefines the phrase over the top. The screenwriters had fun with the script (the Grand Lakes University Hooters is vintage ’80s), Metter makes the most of Dangerfield’s one-trick-pony comedic style, and veteran composer Danny Elfman delivers a campy 80’s musical score. It all comes together as a fun back to school trip that may not equal A+ cinema, but certainly embodies what we know and love about cheesy 80’s comedies.
WIEGENSTEIN: ‘The Graduate’
(First things first: many thanks to my esteemed co-writer for holding down the reviewing fort, while I made my three-state transition into graduate school, and to the folks at The Local Q for letting me stick around.)
In choosing a collegiate movie to talk about this week, many of my most notable options tended toward the comedic (“Animal House,” duh, but “Midnight Madness” and “Wonder Boys” were among my contenders). Unsurprising, given that there’s much comedy to be found in the idea of churning out well-rounded, brilliant citizens after a two-to-four-year melee of drinking and identity crises.
Given this competition, my ultimate choice of 1967’s “The Graduate” seems positively bleak in comparison. Though Netflix classifies the film as a “witty romantic comedy,” its humor is mined from the boredom and emotional numbness of its characters, and the romance is one that features a fair amount of tears. As if there were further question about its bittersweet status, the movie kicks off with the Simon & Garfunkel’s not-exactly-cheery “The Sounds Of Silence.”
With this musical cue, the film gets rolling almost instantly — we’re introduced to Ben (Dustin Hoffman) as he glides through the blank space of an airport via moving sidewalk, which transitions into his floating through a graduation party where the people are just as vacant. Within 15 minutes of the opening, “The Graduate” has already rolled out its two most famous lines: “Plastics,” obviously, and of course, “You’re trying to seduce me, Mrs. Robinson.”
What often gets forgotten is the latter quote’s closing bit, an awkward and unsure “…aren’t you?” stuck to the end of Ben’s assertion. Mrs. Robinson (who never gets a first name, and who refers to her paramour exclusively as “Benjamin”) navigates through the plot with confidence, even as her façade begins to crumble at the halfway point — Anne Bancroft is a mere six years older than Hoffman, yet she manages to imbue the role with the melancholy of the ages.
This is the film that made stars out of both Dustin Hoffman and director Mike Nichols (though he’d already made an impressive debut with “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” the year before), and it’s their work that’s truly able to stand the test of decades. Hoffman’s thousand-yard stare is able to come off as the frozen boredom within Ben’s character, rather than an actor merely sleepwalking through his performance. Nichols would go on to further dissect relationships in “Postcards From The Edge” and “Closer,” and shows a flair for memorable shot composition — “The Graduate” has the lighting and camera angles of a horror film at times, and I highly doubt that’s an accident.
However, for all the things that remain vibrant and interesting about “The Graduate,” there are elements that have either aged poorly (a heavy-handed underwater motif that Nichols fixates on for far too long), or misfire entirely (Hoffman’s stuttery delivery overstays its welcome by a good 30 minutes). There are interesting notes with Ben’s parental relationship that go unaddressed, and a dire need for Katharine Ross to take a few more acting lessons before assuming the mantle of love interest.
All this said, it must be noted that the movie closes with one of the greatest long takes in cinema. Attempting to describe the faces of Hoffman and Ross in the ultimate moments of “The Graduate” can never measure up to watching the play of emotions for oneself. Recent quarter-life crisis movies including “Garden State” and “(500) Days Of Summer” operate entirely within the shadow of Nichols’ work, and while the original falls short of flawlessness, its far-reaching influence and empathetic depiction of post-grad ennui render it well-worth watching.
|Print article||This entry was posted by jmartin on September 6, 2011 at 10:23 pm, and is filed under Uncategorized. Follow any responses to this post through RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback from your own site.|