Sunday, May 29, 2016

Real Genius (Martha Coolidge, 1985)

In Real Genius, a ragtag group of university students at a Caltech-style California technical institute unwittingly help the U.S. military develop a powerful laser that will enable them to kill anyone they want with the simple push of a button. When said ragtag group of university students eventually learn what their laser is going to be used for, they try to stop them. Wow, talk about science fiction. The reason they try stop them, by the way, is because to them the idea of being able to vanquish your foes from the comfort of your living room is immoral and unethical. Of course, nowadays, killing people with the flick of a switch is commonplace. But back in the mid-1980s, not being in at least the same zip code of the person you wanted to kill was seen as cowardly. Oh, how times have changed. Don't worry, I'll get to the scene with the sexy beautician students from The Wanda Trussler School of Beauty frolicking [makeshift] pool-side and I'll be sure to talk about Michelle Meyrink's delectable Meyrinkian thighs, and, not to mention, her Colleen Moore-inspired haircut in a second. It's just that I wanted to prove that I could make a profound point if I wanted to. Now, you wouldn't think that Real Genius would be the type of film that could elicit such a point. However, as most people know, Real Genius isn't as dumb as it looks. Sure, the look plastered on Val Kilmer's face throughout this movie practically screams cluelessness, but underneath that doltish grin lies a sly form of intelligence.

In the past decade or so, the pop culture landscape has been littered with smirking eggheads like Val Kilmer's Chris Knight. Whether they be on TV shows like, Silicon Valley or The Big Bang Theory, or in movies, like, oh, let's say, The Martian or Interstellar, knowing stuff about science has somehow become cool.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, watching two derelicts fight over a half-smoked cigarette while waiting in line to see Laibach was what was considered cool back in my day. And just for the record, I've never seen an episode of The Big Bang Theory from start to finish.

Call it the anti-Revenge of the Nerds, Real Genius is the thinking man's college set comedy. While not as raunchy or crude... or lewd... or even lascivious as Revenge of the Nerds, this Martha Coolidge-directed film has two of the best montages I've seen in a long time. Placed near the beginning and the end of the movie, these montages help move the plot forward by showing the rapid passage of time. Featuring a series of events that go out of their way to show the evolution of the principal characters, these montages are the reason the film is ninety minutes and not three hours. Allowing directors to cram more movie into their movies, the montage is a vital component of cinema.

You're probably thinking to yourself: Um, every movie from the 1980s has a montage. While, yes, that is true. The montages that appear in Real Genius are different. In that, they actually serve a purpose. And it shouldn't come as a surprise, as Martha Coolidge's Valley Girl has some totally awesome montages as well. Get it, "totally awesome." I'm using Valleyspeak in conjunction with Valley Girl, which, most of you will probably agree, is not even close to being grody to the max.

While there's no Valleyspeak spoken in Real Genius, Valley Girl's Michelle Meyrink is basically the female lead and Deborah Foreman has a small part as the daughter of Ed Lauter, who, of course, plays a hard-ass military man.

Don't let the I Toxic Waste t-shirt fool you, Val's Chris Knight is no Spicoli. He's neither a manipulative sociopath like that Ferris Bueller creep. No, Chris Knight is one of the better cinematic role models to be hatched during the 1980s. Quick-witted, smart as a whip, sexually active and sporting a social conscience, Chris Knight represents all that is good and pure. Seriously, he's one of the few slovenly rebellious types I've seen that I didn't want to slap silly by the time the Tears For Fears song started to inevitably play over the closing credits.

Sure, it helped that Chris Knight's antagonists, the aptly named Kent and Prof. Jerry Hathaway, are played by William Atherton and Robert Prescott (actors renowned for their ability to be first-rate assholes), but you can't help but like Chris Knight. And a lot of it has to do with Val Kilmer, whose never been more charming than he is here.

After an opening credits sequence that shows us the evolution of weaponry (from the bow and arrow to the atomic bomb), we get a military demo of some kind of space laser and a scene featuring a 15 year-old science whiz-kid named Mitch (Gabe Jarret), who specializes in lasers. Call me perceptive, but I think this film is an artful satire about how the military exploits scientific innovation in order to make killing easier. I mean, how long did it take for some military commander to suggest that they put machine guns on airplanes after they were invented? Five... maybe ten minutes?

Invited to study at Pacific Tech (the Caltech-style school I alluded to earlier) by William Atherton's Prof. Jerry Hathaway, Mitch finds himself rooming with an eccentric student named–you guessed it–Chris Knight. Invited because of his knowledge when it comes to lasers, Prof. Jerry Hathaway hopes Mitch can breathe new life into his laser project, which he is actually doing for the military. Of course, Mitch and Chris have no idea what Prof. Jerry Hathaway is up to. Though, they should, Prof. Jerry Hathaway is a major slimeball.

Since Mitch is only 15, he finds college life a little overwhelming at first. You would be to if some guy, Lazlo Hollyfeld (Jon Gries), would disappear in your closet every now and then, and a student named Ick (Mark "They're Beauticians?" Kamiyama) had this weird habit of turning the dorm hallway into a skating rink.

As habits go, it might be weird, but Ick's indoor skating rink is where Mitch meets Jordan (Michelle Meyrink) for the very first time. And trust me, meeting Michelle Meyrink is hella positive. So, thanks, Ick. Thanks for being the catalyst that introduced the one-woman adorable symposium that Michelle Meyrink in Real Genius.

After another awkward scene between Mitch and Jordan in the bathroom (Jordan attempts to give Mitch a sweater she knitted for him while he's trying to take a piss), we get our first montage. While editing is a key ingredient when it comes to making a good montage (the sight of Mitch gradually surrounded by tape recorders and less actual students in class is a terrific sight gag), the song choice is probably the most important element. And this particular montage is blessed with a gem called "I'm Falling" by The Comsat Angels.

Under pressure from the military to speed things up, Prof. Jerry Hathaway threatens to flunk Chris if doesn't produce "five megawatts by mid-May." I'm no scientist, but that sounds like a lot. Not wanting to see his classmates burn out, Chris decides to help them unwind by throwing them a pool party in the school's auditorium. Even though there are countless lines in this film worth quoting, I can't help but make a chuckling sound every time I think about Mark Kamiyama's Yuji Okumoto's "They're beauticians?" line. He, of course, is referring to the babes currently dancing pool-side.

No thanks to that Kent cun... Um, I mean, no thanks to that Kent jerk, Prof. Jerry Hathaway busts up the pool party, and becomes even more dickish.

Speaking of dicks, did Deborah Foreman just ask Val Kilmer if he could hammer a six-inch spike through a board with his penis? He did? Well, that was unexpected.

Determined not to flunk out, Chris and the boys turn up the heat, and focus the bulk of their energy on that damned laser. Which brings us to the film's second montage. This one features a catchy song by Chaz Jankel called "Number One."

Anybody else find it odd that in a film that boasts songs by Bryan Adams and Don Henley, that the most memorable songs are by The Comsat Angels and Chaz Jankel? What am I saying? Of course those songs are more memorable. Bryan Adams and Don Henley are lame. It's true, the use of "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" by Tears for Fears is technically cliched, and on the cusp of being lame. But since this film was actually made in 1985, I'll give 'em a pass (using overplayed 80s songs in the 80s is acceptable).

Anyway, when Chris and the boys (and Michelle Meyrink) learn that they're actually working for the military industrial complex, more scientific hi-jinks transpire and more hilarity ensues. I can't believe they made three Revenge of the Nerds, yet there's only one Real Genius. Come to the think of it, maybe that's a good thing. Though, I have read that there's a Real Genius TV series in the works.


  1. I loved this movie as only a geeky science kid growing up in the 80s could.

    It is standalone perfect. No sequels are needed here.

  2. The guy who says, "They're beauticians?" isn't Ick. It's Fenton, portrayed by Yuji Don Okumoto best known as Chozen in The Karate Kid II. Getting two Asian men who don't look anything alike confused isn't cool AT ALL.

    1. You're right... totally not cool. Sorry. I fixed the mistake.