Sunday, February 7, 2010

Up the Academy (1980)

“You really shouldn't go the extra mile when you have a specific destination.” - Alfred E. Neuman

That quote wasn't used in Up the Academy, Mad Magazine's first and only attempt at a feature film, but the main reason I use it here is simple: I wrote it. During my stint as an intern at Mad, I was asked to come up with some potential Alfred E. Neumanisms and that one made it in. Needless to say, I'm quite proud of it. I also included the quote because when applied to creative endeavors, it's terrible advice. Up the Academy is an unfortunate example of what happens when you follow it.

Mad Magazine's specific destination was to achieve the same crossover success into film that National Lampoon had with Animal House, but their contributions were minimal. They simply put their name over the title and featured a creepy masked actor as Alfred E. Neuman in the opening and closing credits. The writers commissioned for the film used Animal House as a guide as well, but added nothing new to its raunchy anti-authority formula. Mad, however, did make sure to go that extra mile when distancing themselves from the film, printing a particularly vicious take-down of the film and shelling out $30,000 to have the publication's ties to the film cut for cable airings. In a similar admission of embarrassment, actor Ron Leibman had his name removed from the credits despite a rather sizable role.

Even with all these dispiriting signs, the credits do sport one particularly promising name in director Robert Downey Sr., whose wild independent films of the '60s and '70s remain cult classics to this day. Putney Swope especially shares the same anarchic spirit of Mad Magazine in its heyday, but Up the Academy only captures that feeling in small bursts. It shows its best hand during its opening sequence, establishing its four central characters as their parents ship them off to Weinberg Military Academy. Chooch (Ralph Macchio, in his film debut) is an Italian mafioso's son who doesn't want to join the family business. Eisenhower is a black preacher's son who formed too special a bond with his stepmother. Hash is a millionaire Arabian sheik's son with a penchant for petty theft. Oliver is an entitled midwestern mayor's son who got his underage girlfriend pregnant too close to an election. These characters are all painted in broad strokes, but in less than four minutes the film establishes a tone where no race or religion is off-limits and caps the sequence off with a tossed-off abortion gag. Not all of it works and much of it winds up being more offensive than funny, but it packs about two solid laughs in less than four minutes and promises a madcap no-holds-barred approach that the rest of the film fails to deliver.

Introducing Weinberg Academy through a parody of the Patton's opening speech, the film's post-credits sequence gives a better hint at what's in store, relying on two well-worn comedy tropes still as common today as they are unfunny: old people swearing and gratuitous fart jokes. The old man making this speech will appear sporadically throughout the film, always accompanied by a fart noise. Weinberg's other faculty members are similarly one-dimensional, among them a flamboyantly gay dance teacher played by Tom Poston and a buxom weaponry instructor played by Bond girl (and Mrs. Ringo Starr) Barbara Bach, introduced through a close-up of her cleavage that is almost certainly the film's longest take.

The film's main authority figure is Major Liceman, played by the uncredited Ron Leibman, but he falls short as both an imposing force and as a comic creation. The threats he spouts to the students are written too blandly to be funny and delivered too clownishly to be intimidating. As the film progresses, any sense of menace he may have, mostly due to a mysterious wind and The Stooges' “Gimme Danger” playing during his entrances, is undermined by his own goofiness. Midway through the film, Liceman is revealed to have a penchant for S&M and other fetishistic sex. It's a one-joke trait that comes out of nowhere, but becomes a driving force for the narrative as the kids concoct a blackmail scheme that revolves around getting Oliver's girlfriend to seduce Liceman into a compromising situation. This is all to prevent Liceman from publicizing photos of Oliver's rendezvous with his girlfriend that would risk his father's reelection. Oliver's dad is painted as a hypocritical politician and doesn't seem to have a great relationship with his son, but Oliver was promised a new car if he doesn't screw anything up, so that's the primary motivation.

The fact that so much of the third act revolves around a spoiled rich kid getting his parents to buy him a car makes the film hard to classify as a snob-vs.-slobs comedy, but the film still cops so many of that subgenre's standard beats. (Hell, part of me wants to believe that Oliver's motivation is a sophisticated commentary on the manipulation of audience sympathies, but there's little doubt that it's just there to drive the plot forward.) Not only is the film often a love letter to labored plot devices, but quite frequently, the scenes meant to introduce the plot or push it forward are often jokeless duds. When Liceman announces early in the film that the student soccer team will be pitted against the faculty during Parents Weekend, there is no joke in the speech and no gag surrounding it; it's just a way to point the audience directly to the setting and circumstances of the film's climax. While Liceman's speeches are a routine offender, many other scenes also wind up completely lacking a joke. Long stretches of the film simply fall flat. This is a serious problem for a film intended to capture the manic energy of a magazine so stuffed with jokes that it even includes tiny cartoons in the margins. It's a strange fate that less than a month after Up the Academy appeared in theaters, Paramount would release Airplane!, a film whose deft pop culture satire and verbal and visual puns owe a clear debt to Mad Magazine in a way that does its influence proud.

One thing Up the Academy does have going for it is its soundtrack. Without a doubt, the songs are used in the most obvious ways, but I'm fine with even the flimsiest excuse to use any of them. Along with the aforementioned “Gimme Danger” denoting danger, The Modern Lovers' “Road Runner” plays over a joyriding scene, Cheap Trick's “Surrender” plays at the start of Parents Weekend, and The Kinks' “Yes Sir, No Sir” plays when the faculty addresses the students. Adding in Eddie and the Hot Rods' “Do Anything You Wanna Do,” Lou Reed's “Street Hassle,” and many other choice punk and new wave cuts sure made those scenes where the dialogue dragged a lot more bearable.

Rating: ** (out of five)

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