Back to School

Year: 1986

Synopsis: Self-made clothing store giant, Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield), learns his son wants to drop out of college, and decides to motivate his son by buying admission into the school.

Pros:
• Rodney Dangerfield drove the not always good-hearted farce, as he was strongly supported by the rest of the cast.
• Highlighted the open secrets of how the wealthy might literally buy their way into college. The real-life extent of some of the bribery schemes now being known added an interesting lens to the plot.
• The differences between practical experience and theoretical exercises were hilariously highlighted, while suggestive of the occasional disconnect between academic and applied practice.
• Genuinely fun, while also showing the value of both experience and education.

Cons:
• The humor largely relied on the viewers like of Rodney Dangerfield’s distinct delivery.
• Can come off as anti-intellectual, even though the value of the college education was highlighted.

Discussion:
Prof. Barbay — David, I just want to get it on record that I am totally against this. I don’t think that selling admission to an obviously unqualified student is either ethical or honorable.
Dean Martin: Uh, right… Phil. In Mr. Melon’s defense, it was a really big check.

Much of the film’s humor relied on the open secret of the wealthy giving large amounts of money for sometimes just a name plaque, leading to the rather conspicuous acceptance of their children. Today, we now know not only the conspiratorial lengths wealthy parents will go to have their children go to the most prestigious universities, but also how big those checks really are. Perhaps the most fascinating element was how some of the college students knew and some did not, making the effects of the bribery just that much more nuanced.

Back to School may be seen somewhat differently in light of that now very public scandal. The prior academic performance of Thornton’s son, Jason, was not elaborately discussed, while Thornton later did say, perhaps cryptically, that he only ever wanted what was best for him. At the start, Jason kept up a facade of being on the diving team, which his father clearly expected him to be on. Thornton may not have bribed the diving coach, but simply talking to him suggested some conflict of interest. Thornton blatantly bribed his way into that college, as he initially paid a team of people to do his work.

That all led to Jason likely representing the student unaware of the possible bribery in his favor, but suspicious enough to exhibit a form of imposter syndrome from the very beginning. At the same time, Thornton arguably played the dual role of the fully aware student and bribing parent. But the lies and bribes, verbal or monetary, came back to haunt Thornton, who was not truly heartless. In the end, the film suggested that things could be made right by deciding to make a contribution that was not just about money.


Rotten Tomatoes — 85%

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