Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Movie Review: Up the Academy (1980)

As a kid I can think of few sources that were as important in fostering my love of reading as MAD Magazine. I remember trading the magazines on the playground from first grade onward, and spent many an hour absorbed in the sophomoric humor contained within its pages. In particular I was fascinated by the movie parodies, as I had developed that love with an unparalleled rapidity. MAD skewered all my favorites including Jaws, Star Wars, Alien, Superman, etc., and I couldn’t get enough of it. It even eclipsed my love of comic books at the time, which was no small feat. So just imagine my excitement, given that movies and MAD were pretty much my two favorite things in the world as a pre-teen, when I learned that a MAD movie was being release in the summer of 1980. It’s a wonder I didn’t pass out from shock when I saw the first television ad featuring a live action Alfred E. Neuman. Unfortunately the movie was rated R, and although my parents could be coaxed into the likes of Alien or Saturn 3 style monster movies, they were not about to take me to what looked to be a riff on Animal House. My disappointment was profound.

I ultimately ended up watching MAD Magazine Presents: Up the Academy a few years later on cable, but was surprised to see no references to MAD or Alfred E. Neuman (more on that later). Furthermore, not only was it a cheap knock off of Animal House, it was kind of dreadful. I had outgrown MAD by that point so it wasn’t a devastating experience by any measure, but more of an odd footnote to the saga. This past week in anticipation of our Schlock-O-Thon, I revisited the film which now has the MAD connection fully restored. The story behind the two versions of Up the Academy is more interesting than the film itself, and the inclusion of the cut footage elevates an awful movie to a bona fide curiosity.

Briefly summing up the plot, four rebellious teens are sent to a military academy to straighten their ways. They immediately run afoul of the school’s commander and a battle of wills ensues, culminating in a soccer game where all stand to lose a great deal. In between fill in any number of lame sight gags that aren’t funny in the least and you more or less have the picture. What distinguishes Up the Academy for special disdain is that in addition to being not funny it is also offensive. I have a high tolerance threshold when it comes to envelope pushing material, but this movie targets ethnicity and gender in a way that is truly mean-spirited. There is no stereotype Up the Academy fails to embrace, resulting in a constant barrage of groan-inducing moments. Watching it I felt bad for the performers, and have to wonder how they ended up signing on to the project. Ron Liebman, who actually turns in a hysterical performance as the evil commander, felt so strongly he had his name removed from the credits.

This brings us to the major controversy regarding the film, the participation and subsequent withdrawal of MAD magazine. Apparently after National Lampoon had enormous success with Animal House, MAD wanted to lend its support to a similar effort. In this case not only did they “present” the film, but they also provided their signature character Alfred E. Neuman to the proceedings. Following the opening credits of the film a live-action version of Neuman opens the film shrugging his shoulders in the “what me worry” mode. He shows up again toward the end after the wild soccer game finale. In addition he was featured in the poster art and the trailers, leaving no question that the spirit of MAD infused the film. After seeing the final product, and being none too pleased, MAD paid $30,000 to Warner Bros. to have their name and all references (i.e. Neuman) removed (at least from the television version). MAD Publisher William Gaines even sent personal apologies to all the readers who sent in complaints. Wow.

Again it’s difficult to understand how these folks could have missed the warning signs, unless the script was somehow lacking in detail. Either that or everyone just jumped on board because it had the smell of success due to its similarities with Animal House. The fact is that Robert Downey Sr. (yes Iron Man’s Dad) executed the direction of the film competently. I don’t see any way he could have elevated the material, and the photography and performances are all on target. The opening credits sequence in particular, which features a decent sounding punk rock song played over images of toy soldiers being knocked over, is pretty cool. It gears one up to expect a much better movie. Speaking of the music, the film has an outstanding soundtrack featuring the likes of Blondie, Lou Reed, Cheap Trick, Iggy Pop, The Kinks, Pat Benatar, Nick Lowe, Sammy Hagar, Ian Hunter, and more. Clearly an effort was made to produce an outstanding musical roster, and the closing credits even play over images of a recording studio.

The excellent music brings up one of the most perplexing aspects of Up the Academy, in that it features a number of positive ingredients that it had going into battle. In addition to the music it had the participation of a well-loved magazine and iconic character, respected indie director, and a talented cast (including Liebman, Ralph Macchio, Stacey Nelkin, Tom Poston, Barbara Bach, and Antonio Fargas). Perhaps most intriguing of all, soon-to-be Oscar winner Rick Baker designed the Alfred E. Neuman make-up. That’s right he went from Up the Academy to An American Werewolf in London. I should mention as well that the Alfred E. Neuman mask is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen. The effect has a strange quality that hovers between real and fake-looking. Instead of being funny and comical like the persona depicted in MAD, the result is downright unsettling. Don’t get me wrong it’s an amazing piece of work as you would expect from Baker, but there’s no question it does not have the effect they surely must have desired.

I have seen many, many bad movies in my time, but Up the Academy occupies a special circle of the Inferno. It’s not “so bad it’s good” like a Gymkata or a Megaforce, and it has on display some material that is absolutely tasteless. With that in mind, on an entertainment level I can’t recommend it. There’s no denying however that as a cultural artifact it is fascinating. If you can stomach the 90-minute ride it’s worth seeing for the disturbing Alfred E. Neuman character, and the fun performance by Ron Liebman. But it’s a long haul with few rewards. That so many talented people could have been attached to a project so without merit is astounding. The bottom line is that the film has no heart at its center because it has a screenplay that fails to understand the Animal House template it seeks to copy. While Animal House is no masterpiece (and I think more than a little overrated), there’s no denying it has a lighthearted, good-natured tone. It’s gross and crude, but it never devolves into the ugly level to which Up the Academy descends. One thing’s for sure, the “what me worry” tagline for which MAD became known certainly had a prophetic quality in relation to their first and only cinematic endeavor.


Daniel said...

WOW! I never knew this movie was THAT bad. I remember when it came out but never laid eyes to it. I'm not sure if I want to track it down! However I would like to see Baker's Neuman mask!

Jim Blanton said...

If you're the least bit curious it's probably worth a look - especially for the mask. Lowered expectations is the name of the game though!