Dir. by Carl Reiner - 1 hr. 37 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
There are movies, that for the life of me, I couldn't explain why I wanted to watch. Worse, I've seen "Summer School" more than once, so I should know better. I don't even really have much nostalgia for the '80s, either. I guess what I could say is that, when "The Family Guy" makes jokes about '80s movie formulas, this movie right here is what they're talking about. And yet, in about thirty ways, this movie could have been so, so much worse, that you almost have to respect the talent it took for a movie about a proto-slacker beach bum discovering his joy for teaching amidst a group of misfits stuck having to go to summer school because they're all really stupid to not entirely suck, credits to credits.
Freddy Shoop (Mark Harmon) is a high school phys ed teacher who gets wrangled into teaching summer school English by virtue of being the last teacher out of the parking lot on the last day, because the guy who was supposed to teach that class won a scratch-it lottery (which must have paid out a lot better back then) and blows it off last second. The class he's inherited include a narcoleptic, a pregnant girl, a dumb jock, a frequently inebriated pair of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" fans (who do a paper, jointly, on Rick Baker), a hot foreign girl, a nerdy kid with no neck, and a surfer chick who wants to be Freddy's Lolita. Freddy quickly gets in trouble, and tries to save his job with a wager; if all of Freddy's students pass the English test they all had to fail to get stuck in this situation, he gets to keep his job. And oh yeah, the teacher that ends up helping Freddy (and that Freddy is sweet on) is dating the Vice Principal, who hates Freddy.
There's two main things that make "Summer School" bearable: Mark Harmon and Kirstie Alley. Harmon's character could easily be a boor, very easily be wholly unlikable, and yet, doesn't ever come off that way. I'm not saying you're going to love Freddy Shoop, but if you take the character as written, there are so many pitfalls that an actor could have fallen into (like playing his naivety as manipulative, or self-serving, or as a run-of-the-mill horndog, for instances), and any of them would have wrecked the film. On the second point, at this point in time, it might be difficult to remember Kirstie Alley as anything other than tabloid fodder. But in 1987, she was at the peak of her comedic powers. This movie must've been made right before she started on "Cheers," and before she made a string of comedies that are the very definition of what a low budget comedy looked like in its time (like "Look Who's Talking" and "Madhouse"), but she was something special as a comedic actress. For her part, her not being easy to win over was believable, and believable motivation for Harmon's character. It's a pretty straight-forward role, the girl who motivates the guy to do better, but she comes off like someone you'd actually try harder for (rather than just being a piece of arm candy), and brings some intelligence to the movie, and in a way that's not annoying or off-putting. Plus, this:
As for the rest of it, there's definitely some capital-h Hijinks. Part of Freddy's deal to get the kids to work harder is that he'll do each of them a favor, which involves things like driving lessons, an in-class screening of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," a bed for the sleepy guy, an unexplained solo trip to a strip club on Ladies' Night, being a tackling dummy, subbing in as a Lamaze coach, and so much more. The good news is that eventually everyone gets a taste for learning, and it's not entirely a bribery situation. And it's an '80s movie, so you know that the stuffy Vice Principal is going to get his comeuppance. I mean, this is the textbook for the formula. There's even a montage!
I always kind of want to hate this movie, but I just can't do it. It's kind of funny, it's well put together. I know I'll probably break down and watch it again someday. All the reasons that I want to dislike it for are the things that hold up best - the utterly '80s-ness of the whole thing, the stock characters and plot. But within that, everyone does their job with more enthusiasm and charm than was strictly necessary, and that goes a long way, especially in a comedy. So I can't hate "Summer School" at all. Besides, a dude on roller skates and wearing only short shorts getting thrown in jail? That's probably always going to be funny.
2 / 5 - Streaming