Friday, August 17, 2007

 

A Girl's Got To Have Her Standards


By Odienator
When first released, Real Genius was marketed as a teenage sex comedy "from the writers of Police Academy and Bachelor Party." This was to draw teenagers familiar with those R-rated comedies to the theater. However, most teenagers looked in the lower left hand corner of the poster and realized Tri-Star pictures was trying to pull a fast one: This was rated PG. With the fresh paint still drying on the new PG-13 rating, teens knew PG was the kiss of death. You might see some kissing, and you might see some death. What you weren't going to see was what happened after the kissing, or the gory details of the death. After all, raunchy begins with R. So does Revenge of the Nerds.

Tri-Star next marketed the film as the revenge of one nerd. "When he gets mad, he doesn't get even...he gets creative" says the tag line on this poster. The he in question is Val Kilmer, and though many may have found him cute or even amusing with his bunny slippers and the alien headgear that was ubiquitous back in 1985, he still was smiling on a poster for a PG-rated teenage sex comedy. Teenagers stayed away in droves, opting instead to see The Breakfast Club, an R-rated John Hughes movie.

I'll bet they were surprised to discover there's more sex in Real Genius; Hughes' R was for language.


Despite the perverted pedigree of its writers Neal Israel, Pat Proft and Peter Torokvei, Real Genius is closer to WarGames than Porky's. It is somewhat a revisionist teenage comedy. Most flicks of this ilk pit the geeks/nerds against the jocks/popular kids, with the latter doing everything it can to make life miserable for the former. Real Genius presents us with a universe where everyone's a nerd, then proceeds to fracture it down the same middle as every other '80s teen comedy. The heroes are "nerds" and the villains also are nerds. I didn't find this hard to believe; in 1985 I was a senior at a gifted and talented high school, i.e., one full of nerds. We had the nerd nerds and the jock/popular nerds. Our world was bizarro in that it followed the same dichotomy of a regular high school despite having only one side of it.

Real Genius' other difference is that it takes place on a college campus like Cal Tech, where the teenagers are more concerned with getting a good grade than getting laid. Everything else follows the genre convention: there's a victimized hero, a cool kid who takes him under his wing to help him achieve his goal, and a mean villain whose comeuppance the audience greatly desires.

The primary villain of the piece is a senior named Kent Torokvei (Robert Prescott). In addition to sharing the last name of one of Real Genius' writers, Kent has 2-liter Coke bottle glasses, little fashion sense and a mouthful of braces. He has a group of yes-men who follow him around, laughing at all his jokes and his cruel putdowns of other students. His favorite color is yellow and he looks like a younger version of the character Philip Seymour Hoffman played in Todd Solondz's Happiness. He is a chronic masturbator and a rather sadistic piece of work. He is in service to a much older character who is the more dangerous villain of the piece. He's the lead guy on the school project that will guarantee him the job he wants after graduation — at least until our hero shows up.

Mitch (Gabe Jarrett) is a 15-year-old wunderkind recruited by the college as one of the few high school students ever to attend the school. He isn't the youngest, however. "We had one 12-year-old, but he cracked under the pressure," reveals Dr. Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton), the aforementioned older, more dangerous villain. Our hero will be an asset to Hathaway's team, as his science project deals with the properties of lasers. It's a lot less fun than some of the other science projects at the fair, but Jerry is under pressure to build a specific type of laser.

Jerry puts Mitch over Kent in the project pipeline, and it's enough to jump-start Kent's vendetta against Mitch. Kent fears for his future — he doesn't want all the brown-nosing he's doing to go to waste. He picks up Jerry's dry cleaning, teaches his classes and even helps with the construction duties on Jerry's new house, a house Jerry is affording by being in business with some shady dealers.

Mitch is going to need all the help he can get. Enter Chris Knight (Kilmer). Chris is the top student in the school, handpicked by Jerry himself back when he was a freshman. Chris and his pals also are the only people in school who realize that grades aren't the only important thing in college life. He has a sense of humor, a thing against authority, a mischievous streak and active hormones. Jerry puts Mitch into Chris' room so that Chris can get him up to speed on the project and help him acclimate to dorm life. Mitch is somewhat in awe of Chris, whose reputation precedes him. Chris' goal is to get the stick out of Mitch's butt and convince him to bend the rules and have a little fun. Chris and his cronies do science-oriented mischief such as turning the entire dorm hallway into an ice skating rink and using laser splitters to invite their sex-deprived fellow students to a tanning invitational filled with bikini-clad beauticians-in-training. Said invitational occurs in a lecture hall that has been turned into a swimming pool complete with water slides.

It's at the tanning invitational that Mitch has a second run-in with Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), Real Genius' love interest. Jordan has the hairstyle Meryl Streep robbed for that "dingo-ate-the-bay-bee" movie, talks a mile a minute, is so hyper she knits sweaters and sands the floor in her room, and is so preoccupied she fails to realize on their first meeting that she followed Mitch into the men's room. "Are you peeing?" she asks while Mitch tries to cover his indecent exposure. At the invitational, Mitch isn't holding his exposed penis, so he is more comfortable and confident talking to Jordan. The two connect while testing out her underwater breathing apparatus. Everything is going swimmingly until, of course, Kent shows up to ruin things. Mitch and Chris are supposed to be in the lab, so Kent interrupts Jerry's public access science show (on the wonders of the human colon!!) to tattle on them. Jerry finds Mitch in Jordan's company and chews him out, telling him he's too immature to be in college. Mitch panics and calls his parents, unaware that Kent is recording the conversation. This leads to the single most painful sequence in Real Genius, where Mitch is publicly humiliated by Kent. Kent plays Mitch's embarrassing call to the entire student body, and the pain on Mitch's face feels palpably real.

However, Kent's plan to get Mitch to leave backfires; Mitch and Chris bond over their desire to avenge Mitch's honor. Chris tells Mitch his story of coming to the college and realizing that, after three years of keeping his face in the books, he realized that he had missed out on all the fun things that make college great. This pep talk makes Mitch smile, especially the part that goes "we have to get revenge on Kent. It's a moral imperative." This isn't the revenge alluded to on the poster however — that comes later.

Mitch then asks Chris about the mystery man whom he has seen several times. The bearded man enters the room, acknowledges Mitch's presence, then says nothing before entering their closet. When Mitch opens the closet door, the man is gone and the closet looks untouched. There are no secret doors or compartments. The guy just vanishes. Mitch's attempts to catch him or interact with him all fail. "Oh, that's Laslo," Chris says matter-of-factly. "He used to be the No. 1 guy here." Where Laslo goes when he enters the closet, I'll leave for you to discover, but it might explain how R. Kelly came up with his "Trapped in the Closet" series. Since there are no extraneous characters in Real Genius, expect Laslo to assist in the aforementioned poster-predicted revenge.

Meanwhile, Jerry cracks under the pressure of his shady benefactors. They are from the government and they want the laser his student team is trying to create so they can use it to fry enemies from space (this is depicted in the hilarious minimovie that opens the film). When Chris is summoned to Jerry's, he encounters the government guys and a very hot looking young woman who turns out to be the daughter of one of the agents. "If there is anything I can do for you," Chris begins, "or more importantly, TO you, let me know." "Can you hammer a six-inch spike into a board with your penis?" she asks. When Chris answers that he cannot, she says "a girl's got to have her standards."

Dr. Jerry Hathaway also has standards, and when Chris can't commit to the accelerated time frame for the laser, Jerry tells him he'll never graduate from the school. Now it's Mitch's turn to give his mentor and best bud a pep talk. He finds Chris outside their window meditating on the words of the great Socrates, who said...I drank what?!" Mitch gets Chris to meditate on the words of Chris Knight: "We have to get revenge on Dr. Hathaway. It's a moral imperative." He and Mitch bust their asses to get the laser working, and when they do, all seems right with the world. This being an '80s teenage comedy, we know this is a short lived nirvana. Kent shows up to sabotage things once again, and though Chris has a last minute epiphany to save the laser Kent destroys, he still vows more revenge on Kent.

So far, there has been so much revenge-vowing in Real Genius that one expects Charles Bronson to show up. Instead, Laslo does, interrupting the team's celebration to ask "why would they need a laser this powerful?" The guys ponder it a moment, then realize they've been used to create a weapon of mass destruction. More revenge vowing ensues!

When the gang finds out the laser has been taken from their lab, they execute revenge plan No. 1 on Kent, who tells them where Jerry has taken it. Revenge plan No. 2 has Chris and Mitch sneaking into the military base while Jordan and Laslo stay behind to hack into the computer to help them. Posing as older military scientists, Mitch wears aging makeup he got from Jake Gyllenhaal's makeup artist on Brokeback Mountain. Somehow it works, and the guys leave a nasty little surprise for Jerry and his benefactors. The bad are punished, the good get avenged, the right people hook up with each other, nobody dies, and everyone who deserves it lives happily ever after. Just like every other teenage sex comedy in the '80s.

Real Genius is a smart movie. Unlike most films of the time, it demands that you pay attention. There are multiple things going on in the plot, and a throwaway line by Jerry early in the film pays off wonderfully in the end for those who have paid attention. Martha Coolidge directs and manages to keep tone despite the film being a pastiche of paranoid government plot movies, science fiction movies, buddy movies and comedy of the high and low variety. It's telling that women directed the best teenager-oriented movies of the '80s, and I'd like to think this is the reason women play a bigger part in this film (and Fast Times at Ridgemont High) than they normally do in this genre.

For example, Jordan plays a major role in the film, and though she is not exactly Phoebe Cates, she is allowed to be not only brilliant but also the object of a young man's desires. Late in the film, Mitch finds the very sexy Patti D'Arbanville in his room. She offers him what Patti D'Arbanville offers you in movies. It appears that Mitch is going to lose his virginity to her, but shortly after the scene ends (remember, this is PG), Mitch appears in Jordan's room. He explains "there was a woman in my room!" Jordan asks, "Did you make it with her?" Mitch says "I wanted to, but I wanted to with you." Jordan pauses, and you can see her hyperactive brain wrapping around this concept. "Oh," she says. It is a perfectly calibrated moment, filmed in closeup by Coolidge so you can see Meyrink thinking. I doubt a male director would have done it this way.

Of course, I could be wrong; three men wrote this film and their screenplay is full of hilarious lines that are almost underplayed by the actors. The one-liners have an almost Steven Wright air about them (the Socrates line had me stumped at first, then I laughed out loud 10 seconds later when I got it) and Kilmer delivers them with impeccable comic timing. Israel, Proft and Torokvei also allow their characters to be more than just genre types. Each has a story and is filled in with three-dimensional detail. Chris runs through a myriad of emotions despite being the resident comedian in the picture; Kilmer invests his scenes of anger and elation with a scary intensity — Chris is allowed to be real to us. Each character, even Kent and Jerry, act in ways we can understand and identify based on the story and their character arc.

The acting also is first rate. Gabe Jarrett gives Mitch an uncertainty about himself that makes you want to be his mentor and pal. Atherton gives us a villain whose motivation, no matter how wrong-headed, seems plausible (and he apparently can hammer a six inch spike through a board with his penis). Jonathan Gries adds mystery to Laslo at first, and then a bit of real pain when he realizes that the vicious cycle of the college making things that kill people is happening again. He gets the biggest reward in the picture, even if his calculations are off. Everyone is very good, but this film belongs to Val Kilmer.

This was Kilmer's second movie, coming after 1984's ZAZ-comedy Top Secret! In that film, Kilmer was loose and hilarious as Nick Rivers, a singer not unlike Elvis who winds up in a World War II movie. Kilmer sings and dances and tosses off every joke without a hint of the glum self-seriousness that marred some of his later work. In Real Genius, he knows how to play every note and every line. There is a lot of scientific mumbo-jumbo in the script and Kilmer actually sounds convincing spouting it. He is even funnier here than in Top Secret! and I wish he'd do more comedy. Sparks of the comedic side of Kilmer show up occasionally in movies such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but I don't think he's ever been looser or better than in Real Genius.

At the end of the film, Chris' pal asks, "Do you think it's getting too weird around here?" "Absolutely," Chris says as Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule The World" plays on the soundtrack. The last scene of this film drives that statement home, and looks like so much fun I wish I could have been there to partake in it. They must have used tons of this stuff.

There's a twist on the adage that goes "the geek shall inherit the earth." I doubt that, but they do inhabit one of my favorite movies of my coming-of-age years.


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Comments:
When I first saw Real Genius in its original release, I liked it fine, but over the years it has really grown on me, becoming one of my rewatchable films, films that if I'm bored and nothing else is on and I stumble upon it, I usually stick around to the end no matter when I come in. One question though: Whatever happened to Gabe Jarrett and Melanie Meyrink?
 
I love Real Genius! It gave me hope when I was a kid that geeks would someday rule the world (great use of Tears for Fears, incidentally). Thanks for the insightful appreciation of the film.

"This? This is Kent. This is what happens when people get too sexually frustrated."
 
Ed, it looks like Jarrett's been working steadily. He was last seen in Poseidon (YUCK!!!!) according to IMDB. He was also in Apollo 13. He looks WAY different. Meyrink showed up in the brilliantly titled "Nice Girls Don't Explode," then she disappeared! (Maybe she exploded.)

Actually, IMDB says she has three kids and lives in Canada.

Bemis, "compared to you, most people have the IQ of a carrot."

"Kent, this is Jesus, Kent. You've been a very naughty boy...I want you to think about what you've done. And Kent, stop playing with yourself!"

"You didn't touch anything did you? Because my filth is arranged in alphabetical order. This, for instance, is under H for toy."
 
Thank you for this. One of my favorite '80s films. The Jiffy-Pop denouement is priceless, as is physics deployed to score the advantage over the bad guys. The question of Martha Coolidge and Amy Heckerling making the two of the best '80s teenpics has long intrigued me. Both "Real Genius" and "Fast Times" were written by men, but the way female directors keep the camera in real time during emotional moments (instead of cutting away or using hyperspace editing to transfigure that emotional moment) is what distinguishes their films, and what meximizes the emotional impact.
 
Carrie, you bring up an excellent point about the female director's approach to emotional moments. There are several scenes in Real Genius where Coolidge's camera allows the emotion to develop and play out on the faces of her actors. She shows them processing these little emotional revelations--Meyrink's smile, Jarrett's realization that it really is a moral imperative to get back at Kent, Kilmer's close-up in the kitchen after he looks at the liquid nitrogen and realizes he knows how to save the day--and they are all played out, as you aptly put it, in real time.

My favorite scene in the film is the entire sequence after the laser blows up. Coolidge plays that scene mostly unbroken, and in a tempo that I at first thought seemed slightly off because I was so conditioned to the way scenes like that tend to be crafted. We ride that emotional wave with Chris from beginning to end.

The raunchy comedies of Judd Apatow's gang try to recapture some of this juggling act of emotion and smut. Yet I wonder how Coolidge or Heckerling would have shot the scene in SuperBad where Seth and Evan profess their platonic love for each other. You can feel the director, by virtue of the editing and camera placement, fighting his desire to make this a nervously homoerotic, played solely for laughs moment. Don't get me wrong, it's an incredibly sweet moment that works, but I wonder how it would have played if Mottola had done it from the angle that closes the scene when the two characters hug each other. I was in a row of rowdy teenage boys at the theater, and the one next to me slumped down in his chair and put his hand over his face. I guess it struck a nerve.
 
I remember seeing Ms. Meyrink in an episode of Family Ties and she played it very non-nerd like, if you know what I mean... ooh laa laa. And according to IMDB, it's Michelle, not Melanie??

I also find this film on my list of guilty pleasures. Thanks much for the review!
 
Good catch. I bet Odie and I made the same mistake. At least in my case I always confused Michelle Meyrink and Melanie Mayron, who both entered my consciousness around the same time. I fixed it in the text.
 
One of my favorite films of all time. It is not a guilty pleasure! I feel no guilt in loving this wonderful film. Not a smidge. Except maybe for the horrible matte shot of the air force plane. :-)
 
Oops! I did just that, Ed. Thanks for correcting!

Jason, I tried to fit that matte shot in the article but couldn't find a place for it. I'll have to send it to you for posterity.
 
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