Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 28, 2004)
Does a film count as a guilty pleasure if one doesn’t feel terribly guilty about their affection for it? I don’t know, but I suppose 1987’s Summer School falls into that category. I loved the movie back in the late Eighties, and while I now see more of its flaws, it remains a reasonably fun and amusing piece.
At the start of the film, long-time teacher Dearadorian (director Carl Reiner) wins the lottery. This means he no longer needs to teach summer school, so Vice Principal Phil Gills (Robin Thomas) scrambles to find someone to teach remedial English. A batch of high school students flunked the English Skills Test, so they need to retake it after this class ends.
Slacker gym teacher Freddy Shoop (Mark Harmon) intends to go to Hawaii with his girlfriend Kim (Amy Stock), but Gills snares him for the teaching assignment. Shoop tries to refuse, but Gills threatens Shoop with a lack of tenure if he doesn’t take the job. Kim goes to Hawaii without Shoop, but he soon meets history teacher Robin Bishop (Kirstie Alley) and falls in love again. He spends the rest of the movie trying to endear himself to her, something that becomes complicated since she just started to see Gills.
Shoop’s class includes a motley mix. We meet football player Kevin (Patrick Labyorteaux), sleepy Larry (Ken Olandt), horror flick obsessed Chainsaw (Dean Cameron) and his buddy Dave (Gary Riley), surfer girl Pam (Courtney Thorne-Smith), nerdy Alan Eakian (Richard Steven Horvitz), pregnant Rhonda (Shawnee Smith), sassy Denise (Kelly Minter), and exchange student Anna-Maria (Fabiana Udenio). Initially the kids walk all over him, and he doesn’t even bother to try to teach them; they just take a series of field trips to places like the beach and an amusement park.
When Gills finds out about this, he plans to suspend Shoop until the school’s principal can return and officially fire him. However, Shoop offers a challenge: if he can get all the kids to pass the test, he retains his job. Gills agrees, and Shoop negotiates with the students to get them to work. He needs to exchange favors to convince them to learn. He also asks for help from Robin. The rest of the flick follows the wackiness that ensues on all fronts.
Summer School is one of those films I can’t judge objectively. As I noted already, I loved it in the Eighties and although I’d not seen it in years prior to the arrival of this DVD, I still remembered it very well. Actually, this screening finally solved an ongoing confusion. I occasionally use the phrase “dumb dildo” but for the life of me, I couldn’t recall where I got it. Summer School is the answer - I was so relieved when I heard it here!
Plenty of other lines and gags stayed in my head, so at times, I couldn’t quite establish if I felt amused because the material was actually funny or simply because of my fond memories. To be sure, School hasn’t aged terribly well. The movie came across as a product of its era, with the usual broad wackiness and Eighties attitude on full display.
The movie also suffers from some notable plot holes. We see lots of students early in the film who vanish mysteriously after a while, though some of them occasionally pop up when the story decides it needs them. This makes no sense and becomes a real concern, especially when the flick goes over the test at the end; we see and hear nothing about the other kids and the flick doesn’t care at all.
Ultimately, the movie overcomes these flaws pretty well just because it tosses in too much fun and vivacity to entertain. The cast certainly helps. We find no master thespians in the crew, and they don’t get much to work with from their thinly-drawn characters, but they create fun personalities for the most part.
Some fare better than others, of course. Dave and Rhonda exist in almost an Afterschool Special world of unusual love, and they don’t fit terribly well with the others. When Kim falls for Shoop, though, this blends pretty well and doesn’t become quite so mawkish.
The film’s heart lies with the wackiness exhibited by Chainsaw and Dave. Clearly they exist as the flick’s prime supporting characters, and it uses them for good comic effect whenever possible. This means the movie departs from reality to allow them to shine, but that seems acceptable. This isn’t meant to be a documentary, so I can forgive the flick’s digressions for comedic effect.
Mostly, Summer School moves briskly and seems like a tight and fun film. Will it offer much amusement for folks who didn’t see it within its Eighties context? I don’t know, but 17 years after its first release, I continue to enjoy it despite a mix of weaknesses.