Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) never went to college as his father had always wanted him to, but he hasn't let it hold him back as now in middle age he is a very successful businessman who owns the chain of Tall & Fat department stores for the larger figure. However, his son Jason (Keith Gordon) has gone to further education, and Thornton is missing him, calling him up on the phone to make sure he is doing fine. But he isn't, and is seriously considering dropping out - what could possibly make him change his mind?
After Caddyshack was such a hit, one of its standout stars was comedian Rodney Dangerfield who was awarded his own vehicles thereafter, although some would argue he never really matched his golfer role in that cult favourite. One thing that Caddyshack didn't have and Back to School did was a strong moral to impart to the kids, as it was too busy making the audience laugh to want to make them muse over doing the right thing in life, all too clearly because its characters were amusing because they were so badly behaved.
In this, however, the structure was reminscent of one of those eighties sitcoms, even if the jokes were stronger stuff than you might have heard on American network television of the day, some of them anyway. Meaning you were invited to chuckle along with Dangerfield as he trampled the rest of the cast underfoot through sheer weight of personality, but also had to take on board the lesson, appropriately enough, that you should stay in college and get educated. Compress this down to thirty minutes with commercials, and you had a TV episode that made you laugh and then went to what the writers of the form called "the shit bit" as epilogue.
But if you were willing to overlook that way you were being preached to by a Rodney Dangerfield comedy of all things, it was easy to see why Back to School had been embraced by his fans for all this time: and that was the preponderance of one-liners in the comic's trademarked fashion. Dialogue such as pointing out his ex-wife was so independent that during sex she used to call out her own name, or on learning an attractive young lady's favourite subject is poetry he invites her to straighten out his Longfellow were exactly what his audience wanted to hear. The business with Jason was wholly superfluous to the humour.
If anything it dragged it down as Thornton enrols himself at his son's university both to catch up on the learning he missed out on, and to encourage his offspring to stick with it by example. The cast was filled out with familiar faces, with fellow comedian Sam Kinison making a rare screen appearance as the history lecturer who naturally gets that bit carried away, Ned Beatty as the memorably named Dean Martin, Robert Downey Jr as the teen movie requisite wacky best friend, Burt Young as Thornton's bodyguard/chauffeur, and a young Terry Farrell of Star Trek fame as Jason's crush. They're all fine, and Dangerfield got Sally Kellerman as love interest, but every one of them was overwhelmed by his presence, making for a curious campus comedy that had a man in his fifties as the star; call it high concept, as enough was funny, yet had you wishing they'd ditched the lecturing. Music by Danny Elfman (who also appeared).