"Summer School" wasn't about horndogs, spring break tomfoolery, or teen suicide. It was this incongruously mild concoction released in the summer of 1987 to a pleasant but unremarkable box office take, hitching a ride on the road to certain teen comedy obscurity. However, the film simply never went away.
Freddy Shoop (Mark Harmon, in a career-best performance) is a lackadaisical gym teacher committed to a life of leisure with his trusty dog Wondermutt. When the vile Vice Principal Gills (Robin Thomas) forces the summer-lovin' slacker into teaching remedial English summer school for social misfits, Shoop is not pleased, and takes the whole opportunity lightly. As the days pass, Shoop finds himself drawn to these kids and their various educational problems, soon transforming the class from a mindless time killer to one of merit he hopes will inspire his students, as well as goose his romantic chances with a fellow teacher (Kirstie Alley).
"Summer School" has survived the test of time due to one simple ingredient: hilarity. Unlike its Ray-Ban siblings, the film wasn't rooted in sexuality, locker combination pathos, or smarm. All "School" wanted to do was entertain, and that singular desire is no doubt due to the touch provided by director Carl Reiner. Yes, that Carl Reiner.
With a directorial goal aimed more at character-based comedy than punchlines, Reiner seems like such a peculiar choice at first glance. He was a 65-year-old man at the time of production, but his years waging a bitter war in the comedy trenches come to serve him well, especially for a soap-bubble teen comedy like "School."
The picture, written by Jeff Franklin (best known as a creator of "Full House"), floats gently in a pool of convention, but the story is never a concern. The fun of the film isn't rooting Shoop on as he teaches, but embracing the kids he's desperate to educate. There's a roster of divergent personalities in Shoop's class, including surfer chick Pam (Courtney Thorne Smith), nerd Eakian (Richard Steven Horvitz), male stripper Larry (Ken Olandt), pregnant teen Rhonda (Shawnee Smith), sexpot Italian exchange student Anna-Maria (the appropriately cast Fabiana Udenio), and everyone's favorite teenage horror geeks, Chainsaw and Dave, played to comedic precision (and apparently under great duress) by Dean Cameron and Gary Riley.
Reiner is not normally a director I endorse with my whole heart, but his way with these actors is something magical to behold. The bright and funny cast all get their chance to click with the material, often working better as an ensemble than in their individual performances. Reiner doesn't exactly make you care about these students, but the viewer easily befriends the underachieving knuckleheads as they try to skate around the ugly process of bargained education. You almost feel bad for Harmon, since he has to compete with so many eccentric and silly actors all turning in ace work for this brittle genre.
"School" is frothy entertainment, which is another way of saying that it won't appeal to everyone. I've been a big fan of the film most of my life, always embracing the California-sun spirit of the picture and the episodic, zany nature of Shoop's interaction with his class. We're not exactly talking Jordorowsky here, but in a decade with so many producers aiming stinkers at teenagers hoping a fresh pair of female breasts will be enough to return on investment, "School" was a welcome, bighearted diversion. It side-stepped low-budget chicanery and Hughesian body language to reach for something infinitely more kind in the middle. Well, as kind as any film that lavishes praise on the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" can be.
The "Summer School" DVD is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio). A bright, sun-drenched motion picture, the "School" DVD does a fine job keeping colors and action stable - particularly vivid during the splatter film goof sequence. The image is free of any defects.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix on "Summer School" is a mild affair, only breaking out during Danny Elfman's bouncy score and for selected pop tunes. Dialogue is cleanly represented and mixed well with all chainsaw sound effects. "Two thumbs up!"
I'll give credit to Paramount for even entertaining the thought of upgrading "Summer School" for a second DVD go-around. However, the supplements included here lack both the info and enchantment I'm sure fans (like myself) were hoping for. Perhaps even expecting.
First up is a feature-length audio commentary with Carl Reiner and Mark Harmon. I'll be blunt: Reiner is an 85-year-old man, and his memory isn't quite the steel trap it once was. This leaves the bulk of the reminiscing up to Harmon, and he doesn't seem all that knowledgeable on how the commentary process works.
The track is a waste of time, with both participants unable to inject some personal anecdotes or behind-the-scenes nuggets of info into the discussion. Even using the word discussion is going too far, since Harmon and Reiner are all too willing to sit there in silence and watch the film. The potential was there for the taking, but nobody bothered to educate the two on what was expected of them. A final irony is mentioned at the end of the film, when Reiner suggests the track is "too boring" because it lacks production dirt.
"Inside the Teacher's Lounge" (14 minutes) is a featurette looking back at "Summer School" and the warm memories it provided the cast and crew. Writer Jeff Franklin, director Carl Reiner, and cast members Mark Harmon, Patrick Labyorteaux, Robin Thomas, Dean Cameron, and Ken Olandt appear on camera to chat about their experience working on the project. It's a short, fluffy piece of remembrance, and only dishes lightly (it seems Fran Drescher was the other actress in serious contention for Alley's love interest role).
"Summer School Yearbook" (10 minutes) focuses on the young cast, cutting between B-roll and interview footage shot in 1986 and new interviews from the cast that bothered to show up for this DVD. Reiner is the official emcee of the featurette, extolling the wonders of his young troupe of actors. Again, this is short, so any true discussion of personality and memory is absent, but it's still great fun to see how some of these performers have aged.
Finally, a well-cut theatrical trailer is provided along with a photo gallery - including a still of a deleted dance sequence hinted at by Harmon during the commentary.
"Summer School" might lack a hipster razor edge, but its funnybone personality is larger than life. It's a film I adore for its purity of intentions and depth of throwaway characters, and in the larger scheme of 1980's teen comedies, it's the one that scored some of the biggest laughs. This new DVD release lacks the crucial information overload format fans have come to expect from their special editions, but what is here will mildly satisfy the faithful, thought it hurts the head to even consider what a proper special edition DVD could've been made from this film.
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