I could write many posts on ’80s campus movies as a genre. But since it’s back-to-school season, today I’m focusing on just one of my all-time favorite campus films: Back to School, a movie that depicts a world where a 60-year-old man without a high school diploma can enroll in college with his son, where dorm rooms can be remodeled at will to reflect the best of ’80s design, and where Oingo Boingo can play at your next party if you have the right connections. In other words, a better world. Many ’80s teens were then let down when they got to college and didn’t enjoy a hot tub in their dorm or have Robert Downey Jr. as a roommate. But first things first…like the retro-awesome world of Back to School.
Meet Jason Melon (Keith Gordon), an average guy who is disappointed when his first semester of college includes little more than failed attempts to pledge a fraternity, make the diving team, and earn decent grades. Here he is with his rebellious roommate Derek (Robert Downey Jr.):
Jason’s dad is Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield), a successful businessman whose claim to fame is his line of Tall & Fat stores. Charismatic and irreverent, Thornton is too much for his shallow wife Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau).
But before they decide to get divorced, we’re treated to some amazing views of their ’80s modern house…
At least modern artwork featuring a computer keyboard is the backdrop to their difficult conversation:
While Thornton doesn’t understand why he can’t get a beer at his own pool party, others are happy just to people watch by the water…
The best-dressed party guest award goes to this guy (comedic actor Timothy Stack in the role of “Trendy Man”):
And as terrible as Vanessa is made to seem in her key scenes, we can’t help but admire her party outfit. Who doesn’t love a good ’80s power necklace?!
Once Thornton is cut loose from the marriage, he decides to visit his son Jason at college, only to find that he’s incredibly unhappy. What’s a dad to do when his son says he’s dropping out? Encourage him to stay in school by enrolling in college too, of course! Sure, the movie portrays most of the university staff and faculty as inept eccentrics who are lucky to be employed at all. But hey, it’s in the name of comedy, right? One intelligent professor who quickly catches Thornton’s eye: Dr. Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman). In the many scenes where she reads literature aloud, resist the urge to have her words morph into a voice-over for Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing.
We love a woman who can rock a floral scarf and a floppy hat! And then there’s Jason’s plight to carve out his own niche at school. Which involves wooing Valerie Desmond (Terry Farrell) and standing up to bully Chas (William Zabka–who rivals James Spader for the hottest teen jerk of the ’80s).
It’s a good thing Jason and Derek let Valerie cut in line to join them as they wait to register for astronomy. She’ll need all of that celestial knowledge as she goes on to a leading role in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. We’re here for you, Jadzia Dax:
At least Jason, his roommate Derek, and Thornton get to take a break from all of the drama in their newly remodeled dorm room, which includes special features like black tile in the kitchen, a massive sofa with more pillows than any guy would ever want in his living space, a large acrylic sphere (a fish bowl? a terrarium? a portal to a parallel universe?), and one of those giant toothbrush thingies for the bathroom:
With such amazing digs, there’s no reason Thornton shouldn’t thrive at college, right? Except he has a little problem with attending class and completing assignments. Instead, he orders pizza for a trio of lab monkeys, sings a Beatles cover song with the dancing vocalists at the campus bar, and pays a team of term paper writers to do the work he doesn’t have time for.
Let’s not forget the dorm party he hosts, with Oingo Boingo as the headliner. Bring on the neon and glass block! Side note: Danny Elfman did the music for the film.
Hey look, it’s the dancing, singing girls from the bar!…
But not everyone is happy at the party. Jason can’t understand why his dad has to buy his way into everything. While most college freshmen would be OK with a little immorality if it involved Danny Elfman singing in their living room and a newly remodeled dorm that looks like an ’80s modern mansion, you’ve gotta give Jason credit for sticking to his values. Even if his sulking wouldn’t be half as interesting without the mini-blinds and tropical plants that surround him:
Will Jason learn to trust his father again? Will he outsmart the irritating yet impeccably coiffed Chas and get the girl? Will he be able to forget that his roommate wore a burgundy striped suit to the Oingo Boingo party? Watch the movie and find out! Thanks for reading… XOXO, Kate