Its sliminess seemed like a foregone conclusion, especially in a season already waist-deep in primordial comic ooze.Nevertheless, "Up the Academy," now at area theaters, has a few blemishes that set it apart even in wretched company.
Instead of another crass imitation of "Animal House," this farce about the escapades of four overprivileged brats enrolled at a military school by their miffed, hypocritical dads -- a Mafia boss, a black evangelist, an oil sheik and a politician -- turns out to be a crass imitation of "M*A*S*H." The sense of humor imposed by director Robert Downey (whose career peaked in 1969 with "Putney Swope" and plummeted in the early '70s with "Pound" and "Greaser's Palace") and writers Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses (who once contributed TV comedy material to Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore) may be gauged by the currency of their targets.
For starters, there's the venerable character actor Ian Wolfe, a wizened commandant who dresses like Gen. Patton and punctuates his speeches with involuntary bursts of flatulence. At a dance between the boys' school, the Sheldon R. Weinberg Academy, and a neighboring military institution for girls, the Mildred S. Butch Academy, entertainment is provided by The Landmines, a close-harmony quintet conceived in ridicule of such long-gone groups as the Crewcuts and the Four Freshmen. To make sure everyone appreciates the hilarity of their old-fashined sound, listeners are shown holding their ears in pain; and glass shatters throughout the auditorium whenever the quintet flats out on high notes.
Downey's direction is so flat that about 20 rock songs have been inserted to cover the dithering continuity with a semblance of "rhythm." Like the flatulent and shattering noises, the score functions a distracting sound effect, camouflaging tattered swatches of "comedy."
"Up the Academy" may be the mose disowned picture of the year. It began production as "The Mad Movie," supposedly inspired by the genial sarcasm of that magazine. Publisher William Gaines had been persuaded that Mad too might be associated with a hit like "National Lampoon's Animal House," but he reportedly despised the movie that resulted, as well he should.
There's no indication that anyone connected with "Up the Academy" felt the slightest regard for the magazine's style or its predominant audience, which would appear to be brushed off by the "R" rating alone. The only reminder of the original association is a figure wearing an Alfred E. Neuman head at the beginning and end of the movie. But it's a stronger reminder than people at the magazine could be expected to forgive, especially when mascot-inbecile Neuman is featured so prominently in the ads.
"Hutch Parker," one of the young actors cast as a mischievous cadet, has apparently decided to change his name to "J. Hutchinson," according to the press kit. Despite the crumminess of the roles, he and Wendell Brown, cast as the sons of the politician and evangelist, respectively, seem fairly personable on screen.
The name of Ron Leibman is nowhere to be found in advertising and publicity for "Up the Academy." Yet Leibman has the most prominent role in the film: Maj. Vaughn Liceman, a martinet cross of Maj. Burns and Nurse Houlihan from "M*A*S*H" who becomes the boys' arch-enemy at Weinberg. Leibman's lack of "credit" here looks suspiciously like a case of professional embarrasment.
A number of fairly well-known performers -- Barbara Bach, Tom Poston, Antonion Fargas, Leonard Frey -- might just as well have chosen anonymity, for all the good "Up the Academy" will ever do them. Only the delectable young actress Stacy Nelkin, cast as Parker-Hutchinson's insatiable girlfired, makes the kind of impression that might be regarded as professionally helpful.
Curiously, one aspect of the military-school setting stirs a hint of spontaneous, enthusiastic ridicule in Downey and the writers: the idea of females in uniform. It might have inspired otherwise complacent imaginations to a fresh kind of comic outrage and offensiveness. It's apparent that the old reactionary targets like the Wolfe and Leibman characters have grown stale with usage. At the same time, the filmmakers seem constrained, perhaps mercifully, from declaring open hostility on Mildred S. Butch Academy.
Not that Downey, Patchett or Tarses could be trusted to joke their way into the clear if allowed to pursue fresh satiric prey, but the legs they long to bite and pull are obviously located inside the walls of Butch.