Looking Back: Summer School (1987)

I recall a Colorado drive-in movie theater that once had both Paramount’s “Summer School” and “Back to the Beach” on the same bill. That might have been the greatest drive-in movie double feature, ever. While I won’t defend the Carl Reiner directed “Summer School” as a great American comedy, especially in comparison to the wonderful, under-looked “Back to the Beach” (which I’ll cover in a future Looking Back article), it is one of those essential 80’s summer movies and has a longstanding fan base.

Mark Harmon made his first post-“St. Elsewhere” TV stardom bid for a film career with this silly comedy, in which he plays Mr. Shoop,  wacky, untalented teacher who is forced to teach summer school. His class is full of party animal misfits, which includes teen comedy standbys as The Hot Surfer Chick, The Bad Driver, The Pregnant Teen and The One Who Always Sleeps. Will our hero inspire these young nitwits to write well, study hard and adapt an ambitious academic plan for life after high school? If you don’t know the answer, you’re actually the perfect audience for this.

“Summer School” wants to be two things that it clearly isn’t: a Savage Steve Holland comedy and a Bill Murray vehicle. While comedy legend/farce meister Reiner makes this agreeably zany and cheerful, it’s all very dumb and lacks any filmmaking panache. Harmon is likable enough and was going through his David Caruso faze of making an ill-considered TV-to-film jump (though this movie and “The Presidio,” his two big film ventures, are far better than Caruso’s “Kiss of Death” and “Jade”).

Harmon is no Murray, who could have carried this movie with one arm tied behind his back. Although he tries hard to play a likable doofus, Harmon is obviously a lot brighter than Mr. Shoop. At least the movie is smart enough to make him the sex symbol and not one of the younger actresses playing his students.

Veteran journeyman actor Robin Thomas is a great foil for Harmon and plays the slimy Vice Principal with just the right amount of snark. I’m not sure why Kirstie Alley is in this. Considering her success on “Cheers” and her massive blockbuster “Look Who’s Talking” coming up at that point, playing Harmon’s reluctant love interest seems beneath her. The cast also benefits from Reiner’s funny, early cameo as a fellow teacher, Courtney Thorne-Smith’s turn as an infatuated student and Wonder Mutt the Dog, who steals as many moments as Mike The Dog in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” the previous year.

What everyone remembers about “Summer School” are the performances of Dean Cameron and Gary Riley as Francis “Chainsaw” Gremp and Dave, Shoop’s knuckle headed, slasher movie-loving students. Riley played the hotel thief in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” the same year and Cameron followed this up with “Bad Dreams” and the “Ski School” franchise- both are very funny here, playing the sort of lovable California dopes that Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter would make famous a few years later. Unlike Bill and Ted, Cameron and Riley are nothing Sean Penn’s Jeff Spiccoli and are more like the kind of film fanatics you’d find at UCLA right now. Heck, I had students like “Chainsaw” and Dave in my UCCS film classes just a few years ago. Its Cameron’s chipper, demented work that gives this the most reliably funny lines and moments, which is a big plus for a wobbly, nonchalantly dumb movie like “Summer School.”

There are a few essential problems here: although it tip toes towards adult humor and wants to be an R-rated farce, it’s stuck in the confines of a PG-13 movie. “Summer School” plays a lot like that other too-tame-to-get-really-crazy PG-13 comedy from the same summer, “Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise,” which also stars Thorne-Smith. Another issue is the filmmaking, which is sitcom-ready at best. The sense of style Reiner brought to his Steve Martin comedies (particularly the ingenious “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” and “The Man With Two Brains”) is gone.

Note the big climax, where the class must take a do-or-die final exam: although set to E.G. Daily’s energetic “Mind Over Matter,” the camera just cuts to a series of static shots of the teen cast nervously writing. Reiner could have used some of Holland’s crazed energy or tendency for showy camera angles. Danny Elfman’s inventive “Happy” nicely bookends the movie but his score is too reminiscent of his far better work on “Back to School” (itself a far superior comedy about slobs seeking higher education).

The screenplay to “Summer School” is especially lazy, even for this genre. Not only is the outcome a given and handled in a predictable fashion, but also unsatisfying. Does anyone in the class actually benefit from having Mr. Shoop as their teacher? I’m not entirely sure. While it’s a funny bit, Shoop’s revealing how most of the students went from an average F- to a C (at best) or just a plain F isn’t really inspiring. If we’re meant to take this as a dig at the Teacher Makes a Difference genre, with Mr. Shoop having the exact opposite effect as the like of Sandy Dennis, Morgan Freeman and other inspiring movie teachers, then I guess I works from that angle. Otherwise, ending the movie with the summer school class being only slightly less knuckle-headed and poor Alley stuck with Mr. Shoop is a dubious conclusion.

I was 9 years old the first time I saw this and its not hard to see why I loved it. Despite a single use of the F-word, a few sex jokes and a fixation on “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Summer School” is really for kids.

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