Saturday, August 07, 2010
All Science and No Philosophy Makes Nerds Have Dull Lives
In the 1980s, Martha Coolidge’s films were a welcome antidote to the dominance of John Hughes’ output. On the surface, her films appear to be quite similar but whereas Hughes’ films ultimately play it safe and are conservative in nature (i.e. the status quo is preserved), Coolidge’s films champion the outsider in society — for example, Nicolas Cage’s punk rocker hooks up with Deborah Foreman’s Valley girl despite societal pressure in Valley Girl (1983). When it premiered 25 years ago today, Real Genius appeared to be just another mindless college comedy like Revenge of the Nerds (1984) but whereas that film had its outsiders ultimately become part of accepted mainstream society, the nerds in Real Genius rebelled against it and were proud to be different.
Mitch Taylor (Gabe Jarret) is a brilliant high school student recruited by Professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) to become a student at Pacific Tech and join a special team working on an experimental laser. Hathaway tells Mitch and his parents in person at a science fair. The exchange between them is priceless. His parents obviously have no idea just how smart their son is and only want him to get the best education. At one point, Mitch’s mother asks Hathaway, “I saw your show the other night on radioactive isotopes and I’ve got a question for you. Is that your real hair?” He cheerfully replies, “Is Mitch by any chance adopted?” They are oblivious to the implied insult and Hathaway pulls Mitch aside and tells him, “We’re different than most people. Better.” Hathaway’s elitist attitude is established early on, setting him up as an arrogant snob that must be taught a lesson in humility by our heroes.
Hathaway rooms Mitch with Chris Knight (Val Kilmer), the top brain on campus — at least he used to be until Mitch showed up. We first meet Chris as he’s being taken on a guided tour of a top science laboratory. He has a t-shirt on that reads, “I love toxic waste,” and a set of alien antennae on his head that demonstrate he is the antithesis of Hathaway. He may be super smart but he’s not a stuffed shirt. At one point, his tour guide asks him, “You’re Chris Knight, aren’t you?” Without missing a beat, he replies, “I hope so, I’m wearing his underwear.” Val Kilmer’s deadpan delivery is right on the money and he demonstrates an uncanny knack for comic timing. The film could have so easily set up a rivalry between Chris and Mitch but instead they become friends and team up against a common foe: Kent (Robert Prescott), an arrogant senior student who also is working on the laser.
Chris is super smart but something of a loose cannon, always cracking jokes and never taking anything too seriously, much to Mitch’s consternation because he doesn’t know how to loosen up and have fun. Mitch also has trouble adjusting to campus life and this isn’t helped by Kent who enjoys tormenting Mitch when the senior student isn’t busy sucking up to Hathaway. Coolidge replaces the class warfare in Valley Girl with in-fighting amongst academics in Real Genius. The setting may be different but the tactics are no less mean-spirited as Kent delights in publicly humiliating Mitch. Meanwhile, Hathaway puts pressure on Chris to produce a working laser before the school year ends. Failure to do so will result in Hathaway making sure that Chris doesn’t graduate or work in his field of expertise. Unbeknownst to the ace student, his professor is getting pressured by a flunky and his superior from the CIA who want to use the laser for their own covert actions (assassinations from outer space?).
Every so often, Mitch catches a glimpse of a mysterious long-haired man who goes into his closet at random times during the day. His name is Lazlo (Jon Gries) and he lives deep in the bowels of the school. He used to be the smartest student on campus back in the 1970s but cracked under the pressure and now spends all of his time generating entries for the Frito Lay sweepstakes (enter as often as you like) so as to get as many of the prizes as possible. Jon Gries plays Lazlo as a shy genius, smarter than Chris and Mitch combined. He’s a gentle soul and a far cry from the arrogant blowhard he would go on to play in Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Over the course of the film, Mitch finds himself attracted to Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), a hyperactive student who never seems to sleep. She sports an adorable Louise Brooks-style bob haircut and a nervous energy that is oddly attractive. I had a huge crush on her when I first saw this film back in the day, quite possibly one of my earliest cinematic crushes. She was the ultimate nerd sex symbol in the ‘80s with her undeniable beauty and brains. Sadly, after a few films she grew disenchanted with the movie making business and retired to Canada to become a Zen Buddhist.
Remember when Val Kilmer was funny? Between this film and Top Secret! (1984), he displays some impressive comedic chops. Kilmer excels at delivering smartass quips and jokes but also is capable of delivering an inspirational speech that convinces Mitch to stick it out at school and get revenge on Kent. There are two scenes where he dispenses with the jokes and has a relatively serious conversation with Mitch about life. They are refreshingly heartfelt and elevate Real Genius above the usual ‘80s teen comedy.
Gabe Jarret is perfectly cast as the helplessly square Mitch with his dorky haircut and his J.C. Penney wardrobe. We aren’t meant to laugh at him and Coolidge shows that he’s a good kid thrust into a new and strange environment. He’s smart but lacks the emotional maturity which he will acquire over the course of the film. Jarret does a nice job of conveying his character’s arc. He doesn’t totally transform into Chris but instead absorbs some of his traits while remaining true to himself.
In the ‘80s, William Atherton seemed to be the go-to guy for playing douchebag authority figures, with memorable turns as the unscrupulous journalist in Die Hard (1988), the “dickless” EPA guy in Ghostbusters (1984), and, of course, his turn in Real Genius. Atherton’s job, and man, does he do it oh so well, is to provide a source of conflict for our protagonists. He portrays Hathaway as the ultimate arrogant prick and we can’t wait to see him get his well-deserved comeuppance at the hands of Chris and Mitch.
Real Genius does plug in the usual tropes of ‘80s teen comedies with the now dated soundtrack of New Wave songs, most of them forgotten except for “Everybody Wants to the Rule the World” by Tears for Fears, which plays over the blissfully carefree ending of the film. There is the wacky comedic set pieces involving pranks. There’s also the T&A factor when Chris takes Mitch to an indoor pool party populated by sexy beauticians. Not to mention, the dorm that Chris and his classmates live in which vaguely resembles the chaotic frat house in Animal House (1978), only inhabited by really smart people.
However, it is how the film presents these generic elements that sets it apart from the typical ‘80s teen comedy. For example, the pranks are quite inventive, such as when Chris and Mitch manage to place Kent’s car in his dorm room. There are several and they all lead up to the mack daddy of them all which occurs at the climax of the film. While there is the requisite T&A factor in Real Genius, the PG rating assures that we don’t see much, just some girls in bikinis. Instead, we get the understated romance that develops between Mitch and Jordan, which is rather sweet in its own unassuming way. The dorm is certainly not the debauched chaos of Delta House, but it clearly is a place of fun, led by Chris and his various antics.
Real Genius argues that nerds can have fun too but there needs to be a balance. You can love solving problems but it can’t be all science and no philosophy as Chris tells Mitch. People like Kent and Hathaway have no sense of humor and are self-obsessed egotists. They are ambitious to a fault, not caring who they step on along the way, while Chris and Mitch are aware of the consequences of their actions. There is sweetness to this film that is endearing and rather strange considering that Neal Israel and Pat Proft wrote the screenplay (authors of such paeans to sweetness, such as Police Academy and Bachelor Party), but Coolidge is firmly in charge and wisely doesn’t let Real Genius get too sappy. She also doesn’t let the funny stuff devolve into mindless frat humor, instead maintaining a proper mix that doesn’t insult our intelligence. The end result is a film that the characters in the film might enjoy, if they weren’t already in it. Achieving just the right alchemy may explain why the film continues to enjoy a modest cult following and is one of the few teen comedies from the ‘80s that stands the test of time.