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Summer School (1987) starstarstarno starno star Starring: Mark Harmon, Kirstie Alley, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Robin Thomas, Patrick Labyorteaux, Dean Cameron, Ken Olandt, Shawnee Smith, Richard Steven Horvitz
Director: Carl Reiner
Rating: PG-13
Category: Comedy

During the mid-‘80s, you could rarely go more than a week without getting a new teen comedy; some were thoughtful, some were raunchy, but, statistically speaking, most of them came quick and didn’t stay long. Once you remove your rose-colored glasses, once you get beyond the John Hughes oeuvre, you’re lucky if you can come up with a dozen legitimately memorable teen flicks. “Summer School,” starring Mark Harmon and Kirstie Alley, may or may not make it into that dozen – it’s definitely one of those films where your mileage may vary – but there’s a reason why it’s maintained such a reputation as to warrant a 20th anniversary “Life’s A Beach” special edition DVD.

Mark Harmon is Freddy Shoop, the gym teacher at Ocean Front High School. He’s been waiting all year for the summer to arrive, so he can jet off to Hawaii with his girlfriend. But his plans change abruptly when the school’s vice-principal (Robin Thomas) presents him with an offer he can’t refuse: teach remedial English in summer school or lose any chance of securing tenure. Mr. Shoop is less than thrilled, especially given the class full of misfits and malcontents he’s forced to put up with, but he keeps his spirits high by trying to get the hot teacher in the classroom next door (Kirstie Alley) to go out with him. (Too bad she’s already dating the vice-principal.) Even worse, as the summer progresses, Mr. Shoop is presented with an ultimatum: unless all of his students pass, he’s fired!

Not that his performance on “NCIS” doesn’t require a certain amount of comic timing on occasion, but it’s a little weird to see Mark Harmon in such an unabashedly comedic role. Kirstie Alley, however, has her traditional role as the no-nonsense type who can reel off the snappy one-liner when necessary. It’s a nice ensemble of students, and while most do a pretty good job, the money roles belong to Chainsaw (Dean Cameron) and Dave (Gary Riley). They do a great Siskel and Ebert riff at one point, and Chainsaw’s most memorable moment comes before the final exam, when he screams at the top of his lungs, then explains, “Tension breaker. Had to be done.” Other students include Shawnee Smith (“Becker”), Patrick Labyorteaux (“JAG”) and a young Courtney Thorne-Smith (“According to Jim”), who fills a wetsuit to perfection in one scene.

“Summer School” could be used in screenwriting classes as a perfect example of how to take a simple premise, with a seemingly obvious conclusion, and tweak it ever so slightly to create a film that exceeds expectations. It isn’t exactly giving away the secret of Rosebud to reveal that Mr. Shoop ends up with the hot teacher next door, but suffice it to say that, when the closing credits roll, everything isn’t wrapped up in the neatest, tightest bow imaginable. The screenplay was written by Jeff Franklin, who’s best known nowadays for his television work (he created “Full House,” and, God help him, that’s probably what’ll be written on his tombstone). It’s nice to see that, once upon a time, he didn’t completely fall back on sitcom clichés.

“Summer School” might not be a classic in the truest sense of the word, but it’s a pleasant, likeable film filled with pleasant, likeable performances. If you haven’t seen it in awhile, you’ll be nicely surprised at how well it holds up.

Life's a Beach Edition DVD Review:
Even 20 years later, it’s obvious that several members of the cast and crew remain proud of “Summer School.” Reiner and Harmon provide an audio commentary track that, while not necessarily what you’d call in-depth, shows how many fond memories the pair still have of their experiences on the film. There are also a pair of featurettes – “Inside the Teachers’ Lounge” and “‘Summer School’ Yearbook” – where they turn up for new interviews, along with Thomas, Labyorteaux, Cameron, Olandt and screenwriter Jeff Franklin. There’s also the original theatrical trailer and a photo gallery.

~Will Harris

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