According to some people, Mark Harmon is best known to his fans as Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs on CBS’s hit drama series NCIS. Those people are wrong, of course, because he’s always going to be Freddy Shoop, a summer school teacher in over his head in 1987’s appropriately-titled Summer School. Harmon turns the ripe, young age of 63 today, and it’s clearer than ever that this man is in possession of a map that leads to the Fountain of Youth, because Harmon ages with grace, am I right, ladies? In fact, while it’s no wonder why this actor was named People’s Sexiest Man Alive in 1986, it is rather shocking that he never received that accolade again, specifically in 1987, when the most important work of his career was released.
The coke-fueled era of the 1980s in Hollywood was filled with more high school movies about slackers and smartasses than anyone actually needed, especially when it came to featuring students who looked like they were older than the teachers. Summer School was always perhaps the most underrated of the decade’s tributes to slackademics (trademark pending) because what it lacked in the typical star power of, say, a John Hughes film, it more than made up for in creating arguably the most creative collection of “teenage” dipshits than any film of the genre. At the same time, it showed that Harmon, who was probably best known at the time for his role as the HIV-positive Dr. Robert Caldwell on St. Elsewhere, had a strong sense of comedy, while also confirming (along with her debut on Cheers that same year) that Kirstie Alley was much, much more than just a really attractive Vulcan.
Summer School isn’t just some cult classic that people love to mention whenever someone randomly asks, “Hey, whatever happened to Dean Cameron?” It was actually well-received at the box office, earning $36 million in theaters on what I assume was a budget of a few rolls of nickels and someone’s baseball card collection. Critics, however, were a little more mixed on this mindless comedy, as Roger Ebert gave it one-half star out of four, which sounds a lot better than one star out of eight, so you know what? I’ll take it.
Maybe in the movie business we could coin the term vaporfilm, for movies that zip right through our brains without hitting any memory molecules.
“Summer School” is a movie like that, a comedy so listless, leisurely and unspirited that it was an act of the will for me to care about it, even while I was watching it. This movie has no particular reason for being, other than to supply employment for people whose job possibilities will not be enhanced by it. (Via RogerEbert.com)
Here’s a tip for all of you aspiring film critics out there, courtesy of King Ebert – if you’re watching a movie with a title as lazy as Summer School, and the opening of the film features a school’s teachers trying to haul ass after the bell on the last day of the semester so they don’t get suckered into teaching the titular course, get up and walk out. Leave the movie for those of us who love to watch stupid movies and go to the next theater to watch and analyze La Bamba. Perhaps that’s why the fan reviews of Summer School on Netflix seem to be so glowing, as I only found three that were two stars or less. In fact, here’s the worst of them all:
Nothing but trash. Nothing worth seeing. Degenerate teens in bad need of harsh discipline. It’s depressing to think that so many young people actually enjoy this trash. This movie is immediately available from NF while so many more interesting ones languish in the ‘saved’ section, or in ‘short wait’, ‘long wait’, or ‘very long wait’ status. Just one more nail in the coffin of American culture, or lack thereof.
Thank God Armond White weighed in. The majority of people, myself included, fondly remember Summer School for what it is – a fun, stupid movie that was meant to make us laugh, while perhaps also rubbing our noses in the awesomeness of 80s California if we didn’t live there. But I’ll take this analysis one step further by laying out these 10 very important lessons that I took away from Summer School after watching it this morning, in paying tribute to Harmon, a man who was Kevin Costner before Kevin Costner was Kevin Costner.
Always put sunglasses on your dog.
Fact: 100% of movie posters that have dogs wearing sunglasses on them are movies that I’m willing to at least watch. The movie could be called This Dog Dies from Space AIDS, and I’d still be curious to see why that dog is wearing sunglasses.
Always have an escape plan.
When everybody else is hauling ass from the faculty parking lot at the last second, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t already be packed for your trip to Hawaii. I don’t like to point fingers, but Mr. Shoop’s girlfriend is clearly at fault here. All she had to do was pack the car for him, and he could have jumped in and taken off for the airport. Instead, Kim kicked her man while he was down and not only snatched her ticket to Hawaii from the pocket of his rad flowered shirt, but she also told him to drive her to the airport. I don’t mean to offend anyone who is overprotective of fictional characters, but I hope that Kim was eventually fed to the volcano gods.
Also, let’s consider this a lesson within a lesson – would you walk away from your teaching job right now if someone handed you a winning lottery ticket for $50,000? I say no. Just pass all of the morons while you spend the class time reading up on investment opportunities.
Never be afraid to encourage the creativity of your students.
The true sign of a teacher’s efforts in a classroom is how far the students are willing to go to show others their appreciation of his work. In Shoop’s case, once he resigned because his students were greedy little pricks, those same students objected to a new teacher taking over the class by staging a gruesome and horrifying murder scene, complete with two of the students wielding chainsaws, declaring themselves psychopaths and thus taking credit for the violence. Of course, I can’t stress this enough, no high school students should ever think about trying to recreate this scene today.
On a side note, and I hate to nitpick true artistic masterpieces, if you’re going to have a severed hand pull a dude’s tongue out of his mouth and slap him with it, it’s really important that he not blink. Damn it, people, we need accuracy.
Being a male teacher in California in 1987 was probably terrifying.
Between Summer School and Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise, 1987 was a huge year for Courtney Thorne-Smith. Hell, both movies came out in the same week in July, when she was just 19 years old and poised to become the next big things in terms of girls that all teen boys wanted to marry. Unfortunately, her movie career never really panned out, as the last live action role she had on the big screen was as Natalie in the Carrot Top hot fart Chairman of the Board. Her TV career was obviously a lot better, but that’s neither here nor there. Having her play a lovelorn surf goddess crushing on Shoop probably lured a lot of guys to the teaching profession, only to have them learn the hard way that prison sucks.
Additionally, there was the foreign exchange student Anna-Maria Mazarelli, who would grow up to win our hearts as Alotta Fagina. Was it standard procedure for foreign exchange students to be shoved into remedial English classes upon arrival? Sure.
It’s important to support fine arts programs.
When I write about how hilarious it was how Hollywood tried to make us buy that some actors were teenagers when they were clearly at least a decade older, Ken Olandt is really Exhibit A. The guy who played Larry, the sleeping student by day and male stripper by night, was actually 29 when he was portraying a 17-year old, which is pretty hard to pass when very few teenage boys A) look like that and B) are hired to shake their dongs in strip clubs. Still, glaring age gaps and statutory and employment laws aside, it was nice to see that Shoop was so cool about Larry’s awesome after-school job. That is until he was busted by his mom and presumably spent the next decade in therapy.
It’s not lying if the company ripped you off in the first place.
The first time that I ever saw Summer School, I was convinced that the part about writing letters to companies to get free stuff would work every time. I spent a lot of time trying to write letters to the companies that made my favorite toys, so I could convince them that the action figures and especially the vehicles that I couldn’t afford had been broken. But then I realized that I might be called on my BS, and guys in suits might show up to my home demanding to see the broken toys, and then I’d be screwed and sent off to prison for lying. Ultimately, owning Krang’s fortress wasn’t worth a life spent in prison making license plates, which is how TV and movies taught me that license plates were made.
Jail in California looks very scary.
I still don’t know what the guy with the mustache is doing with his hand, but it’s really scary and I don’t want to ever have someone do that to me, so I’ve chosen to lead a life on the straight and narrow. Thank you, Summer School, for teaching us that jail is filled with scary perverts who want to do bad things to shirtless men on roller skates.
No matter the risk, steal your boss’s girlfriend.
Vice Principal Gills was a pretty big bite in the ass, so we had to cheer for Shoop in pursuit of Robin Bishop, because Shoop was the coolest and his girlfriend had only recently taken off for Hawaii without him. Sure, Robin was kind of stuck up because she questioned the legitimacy of taking students to something as awesome as a petting zoo, which produced adorable moments like this:
And she also wore a denim shirt tucked into a different shade of denim skirt, because it was the 80s, but she had a good heart and she just wanted what was best for all students, even if it meant agreeing to a date with Shoop to get there. Also, Gills looked like a total goober-douche, and there’s no reason he should have been with Robin.
Education can be a compromise.
Is Alan Eakien one of the most underrated teen nerds of cinema? I say yes. That kid may have been dumber than rocks compared to his genius brothers, but he negotiated circles around Shoop. In exchange for a slightly-above-half-assed effort from less than half of the original class roster*, Shoop’s couch was set on fire, his goldfish murdered and car wrecked, bookending that whole going to jail for the two D-bags thing. Things could have been considerably worse, too, because Robin could have tried to get him banned from teaching for the rest of his life for allowing a female student to live with him.
But ultimately Shoop sacrificed so much for the sake of helping a few of his students learn some lessons about life, since they didn’t all pass their exams. Is he a good teacher for that or was he just an idiot being taken advantage of by other idiots? Especially idiots who looked like this:
Being an idiot isn’t all that bad, so long as you’re not a total idiot.
Hey, in the end, some of those kids passed their exams, and the most important of them all was Pam, because that meant she could move on and not try to make it so Shoop returned to jail. This guy went from being just a run-of-the-mill bro’s bro gym teacher to making an impact in the lives of some kids who looked like they were grown adults. Sure, he couldn’t even talk a 17-year old out of stripping, and he allowed some of his students to treat the foreign exchange student like a sex model, but Freddy Shoop probably learned more than anyone.
Also, he totally stole the douchebag Vice Principal’s girlfriend, and Wonder Mutt found Bobby again in the end, so this really was a movie with a beautiful and happy ending.
*So did all the rest of the students that ran out of class on the first day just quit school and go on to lives of crime and trading sex for favors? Because Shoop’s roster was down to seven or eight students at the end. I’d be really concerned if that oversight is indicative of California’s education system.