August 7th, 1985
REAL GENIUS is a Summer of 1985 movie that’s completely new to me. I’ve seen the cover and known for most of my life that it was a comedy starring a young Val Kilmer that certain people swore by, and that’s about it. So the whole tone and content was a surprise to me. I had no idea it was a college movie, or that it’s grounded in a little bit of serious world. It opens like a thriller, telling us about a CIA militarization-of-space initiative called the Crossbow Project, which is very similar to the Grazer One satellite in UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY. Using lasers, it could zero in on and assassinate people from space. But at this point it’s imcomplete, and they’re putting pressure on professor (and TV host) Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton, after playing a punchable prick in GHOSTBUSTERS, before playing one in DIE HARD) to push his team of young geniuses at the Pacific Technical University to crack that problem with the energy source so they can “have a working weapon by June.”
Another thing that surprised me is that Val Kilmer (TOP SECRET!)’s Chris Knight, the only character on the cover, is kind of the second lead. It wasn’t as shocking as learning that CADDYSHACK was about teenagers, but still, I wasn’t expecting it to center on 15-year old physics prodigy Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret, “Boy at Funeral,” GOING APE!) who, while other whiz kids his age are staying home doing weird science with their horny friends, is personally recruited by Professor Hathaway to go to college and work on this project. He’s a genius, but very aware of how physically young and socially inexperienced he is, making this a very scary move. He’s heard legends of Chris, the only other person recruited to the team when he was a freshman, and can’t believe it when they turn out to be roommates.
Chris is every bit as brilliant as his reputation, but also a frustration to the professor, since he’s more interested in goofing around than fulfilling his academic potential. He’s introduced on a job recruiting visit wearing Vans, an “I ❤︎ TOXIC WASTE” ringer shirt and novelty antennas, which do not stop him from hitting on the boss’s assistant (Patti D’Arbanville), on account of he’s a rascal.
It struck me that Kilmer is playing a Johnny Depp character before such a thing existed. He knows he’s handsome but is way more interested in fucking with and confusing people than being cool. He’s got a Bugs Bunny sort of approach to human interaction, pretending everything is very normal while intentionally talking above and below and around everybody’s heads. He’s always aware of what other people expect or want from him, and goes out of his way to not give it to them.
In many ways this is like a less broad, less rapey, less constantly-having-a-boner version of REVENGE OF THE NERDS. It shares an interest in showing that nerds can have a fun time in college, but it’s a more true-to-life version of nerds, and of fun. Yes, they’re smart and sometimes socially awkward, but they’re proud of their quirks; there are no popular kids to compete with. They love decorating everything with clutter and graffiti, and to apply their skills to elaborate goofs and pranks, usually of a less cruel nature than in the other movie. In one of the scenes I found most amusing, Chris and a guy named Ick (Mark Kamiyama) have somehow created a layer of ice in the hall and stairway of their dorm and people keep skating and sledding by while Mitch converses with them, still getting a hang of the school.
My actual favorite absurdist joke is that Mitch keeps seeing an older, tired-eyed longhair guy (Jon Gries, MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI) come into his dorm room and go into his closet. And then he’ll open the door and nobody’s in there. I actually think it would be funnier if there was never any explanation, but it’s also kind of cool that he eventually finds a secret passage/elevator/carnival ride to where this former student is squatting beneath the school.
Ooh, another good one is that some of the students set up tape recorders to record lectures instead of attending, and then one day Mitch shows up to a lecture hall with no people in it at all, just a bunch of devices recording a lecture by a reel-to-reel player.
In other ways it’s a more standard teen comedy, with multiple song montages to get through all the sciencing they gotta do. The soundtrack is mostly bands I’m not familiar with (The System, The Call, The C.S. Angels, The Textones) plus “One Night Love Affair” by Bryan Adams, “All She Wants to Do Is Dance” by Don Henley and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears For Fears (all of those from previously released albums).
Hathaway is a perfectly hatable villain with a disingenuous friendliness with civilians and open arrogance with students. He’s not only part of an immoral government project, but he’s skimming the till to build himself a new house. And he yells classist insults at the people building it. But for much of the movie the antagonist is his most ass-kissing student, Kent (Robert Prescott, BACHELOR PARTY). He’s way broader and less dimensional than the rest of the movie, a sniveling, tattletale shithead in Coke-bottle glasses, braces and preppy sweater. But I can’t lie, I sorta enjoyed seeing him lose.
Jarret as Mitch has a good Freaks & Geeks type of likable awkwardness. There’s a delicate balance because Chris is the fun character but he’s also obnoxious enough that Mitch remains relatable. Chris acts as his wacky mentor who yanks him out of the lab to a pool party he set up in a lecture hall. While Chris has the more standard ‘80s movie obsession with blondes and boobs, Mitch is only interested in Jordan (Michelle Meyrink, THE OUTSIDERS, VALLEY GIRL, REVENGE OF THE NERDS), the cute and literally manic weirdo who comes to the pool party to test out the re-breather she’s working on. The party is valuable learning for Mitch’s social life but also gets him in trouble with the school, which is something he actually cares about.
I was young in ’85 and I’ve never been to a school like this, so maybe it was different then and there, but there are a few things that I had a hard time buying. One was that 19-year-old Jordan falls for visibly-high-school-age Mitch and nobody seems to think anything of it. But maybe it’s just a fantasy for teenage boys to enjoy (along with him turning down sexual advances from a woman in her thirties). The other thing is the scene where Kent makes a recording of Mitch crying on the phone with his mom, and plays it to everyone in the cafeteria, and they laugh. Obviously people can be assholes, but I can’t picture this many college students openly enjoying the public humiliation of a kid. I think almost all of them would feel sorry for him and turn on Kent for doing that shit.
The pranks played by everybody else are more playful and subversive. The main one hinges on the random character detail that Hathaway hates popcorn. Good thing he mentioned that. Cinematic practical jokes were such a big part of ‘80s comedies such as the POLICE ACADEMY series (by some of the same writers). I like that here they’re not using them against the preppies, the rival frat or the uptight boss – well, they kind of are, but in the bigger picture they’re sort of against the military-industrial complex. They discover the true purpose of the project Hathaway has had them working on and they feel an obligation to sabotage it.
The American intelligence agencies and military are not only portrayed in a sinister light, but as a white dominated old boy’s club. In the opening scene the council of receding-hairline white dudes in suits headed by David Decker (Ed Lauter, DEATH WISH 3, THE ARTIST) sit at a mini DR. STRANGELOVE war room table to watch a movie about the Crossbow Project (with skateboard pioneer/future documentarian Stacy Peralta playing the shuttle pilot, for some reason). Asked his opinion, an Air Force General (Charles Shull) jokes, “I think there weren’t enough girls in it.” When George (Beau Billingslea, 10 TO MIDNIGHT), the one Black member of the council, objects to the secret program, another guy asks, “So it’s both immoral, and unethical?” And he keeps a straight face until the others laugh.
“When do we get it?”
George says “this is too much” and walks out right after the General makes a dick joke and right before Decker says he’s “afraid we’re gonna have to liberate George.” Then the rest of them settle in for “that film on blinding techniques.”
So it’s a college campus comedy with a point-of-view about the larger world, and an optimistic view that the scientific geniuses whose technology those systems depend on can rebel against them with puckish mischief. That’s how they make it entertaining, but the real message there is just that they should think and care about the applications of their work. That’s a little more than I expect in this genre. Good for them.
This is the fifth narrative feature by director Martha Coolidge, two years after her success with VALLEY GIRL. She took the screenplay by Neal Israel & Pat Proft (POLICE ACADEMY) and, after months of researching lasers, CIA policy and life at Caltech, had it rewritten by uncredited Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel (NIGHT SHIFT, SPLASH), then SCTV/WKRP writer Peter Torokvei, who did receive credit. From what I’ve read, the look of the dorm and all the writing on the walls and stuff comes from Caltech traditions, with students acting as consultants and extras, which explains why it rings more true than REVENGE OF THE NERDS college life.
Amazingly, the cinematographer is Vilmos Zsigmond, known for McCABE & MRS. MILLER, DELIVERANCE, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, THE DEER HUNTER, HEAVEN’S GATE, BLOW OUT, etc. It looks pretty nice, but I wouldn’t have guessed, you know?
It’s only the third movie produced by Brian Grazer, his first not directed by Ron Howard.
REAL GENIUS was released on a Wednesday, so it hadn’t even been a week since the release of fellow teen science comedy WEIRD SCIENCE, which still made more money than it that weekend. But this one did make a little bit more than its modest budget and more importantly earned a pretty favorable reputation among those who did see it. Reviews were pretty good, with strong nerd advocate Roger Ebert seeming to appreciate it more than most. He liked that it “allows every one of its characters the freedom to be complicated and quirky and individual,” that Coolidge’s characters “don’t have to be John Belushi clones, or fraternity jocks, or dumb coeds. They can flourish in all of their infinite variety, as young people with a world of possibilities and a lot of strange, beautiful notions.”
Yeah, this is a unique twist on the college comedy, with some laughs and a pretty good attitude. I can see why it stuck with so many people.
Summer of 1985 connections:
There’s a wall that has a picture of (I think) Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider and another one of Elvira. Both of those people appear in another comedy that was released wide that Friday and will be reviewed here soon.
Like several other Summer of 1985 movies there’s a Star Wars reference – this time to Yoda, not “May the Force be with you.” One of Chris’s quirky t-shirts is for The Monkees. But there aren’t many visual references to popular music like in most of these ’85 comedies, and none of the modern association between nerds and sci-fi.
Martha Coolidge (director) followed this with the pilot for DIRTY HARRY/Hunter parody show Sledge Hammer!. But she did quite a few theatrical movies – PLAIN CLOTHES (1988), RAMBLING ROSE (1991), LOST IN YONKERS (1993), ANGIE (1994), THREE WISHES (1995), OUT TO SEA (1997), THE PRINCE AND ME (2004), MATERIAL GIRLS (2006) – before settling into her current career directing TV shows including CSI, Shark, Weeds, Psych, Madam Secretary and Angie Tribeca (a fitting followup to Sledge Hammer!). She also got Emmy and DGA nominations for her 1999 HBO movie INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE starring Halle Berrry, and was the first female president of the DGA (2002-2003).
Pat Proft (screenwriter) became the writer of the NAKED GUN and HOT SHOTS! movies, plus BRAIN DONORS, HIGH SCHOOL HIGH, MR. MAGOO, WRONGFULLY ACCUSED and SCARY MOVIE 3-5.
Neal Israel (screenwriter) later directed COMBAT ACADEMY, SURF NINJAS and a bunch of Disney Channel shows. Somehow he got a producer credit on FINDING NEVERLAND (2004). As an actor he appeared in IT’S ALIVE III: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE.
Torokvei (screenwriter) came out as a trans woman in 2001 and went by PJ Torokvei. BACK TO SCHOOL, ARMED AND DANGEROUS, CADDYSHACK II and GUARDING TESS are among the movies she wrote before her death in 2013.
Gabriel Jarret (Mitch) went on to play the guy who gets his nose broken by Daniel in THE KARATE KID PART III (1989).
Seven years later Dean Devlin (Milton) made his screenwriting debut with UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, and was Roland Emmerich’s writing/producing partner for STARGATE, INDEPENDENCE DAY and GODZILLA. He also directed GEOSTORM and BAD SAMARITAN.
In 2014, Adam Sandler’s company Happy Madison announced they were doing a REAL GENIUS TV series, but it hasn’t happened so far, not even on the USA Network.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.