The Genius Club

Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.

Cultural infamy: The cultural infamy of The Genius Club lasted all of about three days in May of 2007, when writer/director Tim Chey screened the bizarre stealth-Christian action-thriller—about a government plot to solve the world’s problems in one night by gathering geniuses together to work on them—at the Cannes Film Festival. Its allure didn’t live past anyone actually watching the movie; despite Chey jumping through hoops on his website to prove it was a real success (“the #2 independent film in Mexico City September 21-23”!), it slunk straight to DVD. Much as Tommy Wiseau began pretending The Room was always intended as a black comedy after it became painfully clear no one was taking it seriously as a drama, Chey gave up the pretense that The Genius Club was meant to be a mainstream movie after it attracted one miserable review after another (Rotten Tomatoes has it at a dismal 14% freshness, while Metacritic doesn’t even bother to list it). He revised his film’s website, cover art, and other marketing materials to make its Christian message more explicit, and now there’s all sorts of fulsome praise for the movie from somewhat less demanding religious audiences. (“Awarded 5-star Dove Family Seal of Approval! Show this movie in your church!”)

Curiosity factor: Beyond the “filmed in the same basement you loved in Fight Club!” factor, most of what curiosity still exists around The Genius Club stems from its cast. Aside from the universally crappy reviews (which, admittedly, are so negative that they build up a decent amount of so-bad-it’s-good expectations), it generated a lot of other bad press, too. Stories following the DVD release mostly involved its ham-fisted stealth message campaign and the clumsy nepotism of the casting (lead actor Jacob Bonnema is the son of the film’s executive producer and primary funding source, Arch Bonnema). As a measure of how curious I was about the movie, I picked up a DVD screener at South By Southwest two years ago (following The Genius Club’s almost non-existent pre-Cannes theatrical run) and didn’t get around to watching it until this August. Still, there’s something about the stunningly negative reviews and the goofy 24-meets-Jesus premise that kept the movie nagging at my consciousness. There’s also the cast: hulking ne’er-do-well Tom Sizemore, chewing concrete as the main villain; veteran third-stringer Jack Scalia as the president; Tricia Helfer, a million miles from Battlestar Galactica, as a dying painter; and everyone’s favorite super-cool, bankruptcy-prone exxxtreme Christian, Stephen “Stevie B” Baldwin, as…uh…a pizza delivery guy.

The viewing experience: Whenever a movie begins with a montage of real-world news events, it’s a good bet there’s some heavy-duty flatulence ahead, because the director isn’t confident enough of his own images and ideas to draw you in, and instead substitutes JFK talking about “Kyoo-ber”. But after that, The Genius Club kicks in at a rapid clip, with hunky ding-a-ling Huntley Ritter letting us know, in monotonous voice-over, the plot of the movie we’re about to watch. (It’s a true story, he says, but we can’t tell anyone, or we might “change the world as we speak.” I guess it’s a good thing so few people saw it, then.) Ritter plays a Homeland Security operative who’s traveling all over the country tracking down the smartest people alive, as defined by some nudnik he meets outside an abandoned warehouse who Googled “high IQ.” Happily, all of the world’s 200+-IQ people live in the United States, and none of them bother to ask the federal goons who show up to collect them for a badge or even a compelling reason they’re being taken into custody—including our main man Stevie B, playing a super-genius who, unlike most pizza delivery guys, spends his time defeating random M.I.T. chess champions in the park instead of getting baked in his mom’s basement:

The rest of the seven-person crew of brainiacs—all with IQs over the inexplicably magic number of 208, as evidenced by the 60-point red font on their FBI web pages—are eventually assembled: Helfer, Baldwin, casino owner Carol Abney, seminary student Bonnema, economist Philip Moon, biochemist Paula Jai Parker, who we are told invented the cure for athlete’s foot, and pro ballplayer Matt Medrano. (Director Chey reminds us of Medrano’s occupation by having him constantly tossing around a baseball that he just happens to have had in his pocket, but strangely, Parker is not forever toying with a can of Tinactin.) They are rushed to an undisclosed bunker on Christmas Eve—the White House has also been evacuated, but “the press corps is quiet” for some reason—and are given a debriefing.  By the president! Yes, the president himself shows up to explain that the gathered geniuses have 24 hours to solve all the world’s problems or else. 

Ritter, looking like a young Dennis Miller and acting like an old washcloth, explains that only one day before, he received a call from wheezing, cackling Tom Sizemore, informing him that he’d planted a nuke 10 blocks from “that house that’s all white.” Ritter finds the bomb, immediately identifies it as crammed with uranium 238 even though he is a hostage negotiator and not a nuclear physicist, and pronounces it impossible to disarm. The Genius Club has no choice, then, but to play along with Sizemore’s game, in which they get points for answering completely unanswerable questions. Just to prove that he’s serious, Sizemore blows up another nuke on a South Pacific island, resulting in a news report so ridiculously unconvincing that Parker has an asthma attack and Baldwin’s nose ring glistens as if he forgot to wipe after sneezing.

Sizemore, who doesn’t seem any happier to be in the movie than I was to be watching it, first challenges the intelligence of Baldwin by making him solve a riddle from an 8th-grade logic-puzzle book, and then poses his first question: “All wars have been a massive waste of human lives.” That’s not really a question, but hey, off we go! What follows is a series of incredibly non-thrilling philosophical discussions in which both sides of the argument are stupid. When Moon suggests World War II as a non-pointless war, he doesn’t give a reason; but that’s okay, because Sizemore’s counter-argument—that no one has ever invaded the United States—makes no fucking sense whatsoever. Bonnema gives a master class in being the producer’s son, delivering lines like, “But… What about the collapse of communism, though? I mean, that was good,” with all the gusto of a bored teenager who’s still drawing an allowance.

Conversely, Sizemore is pleased by the dying-of-a-brain-tumor Helfer’s answer to the question, “Why is there no cure for cancer?” Helfer claims that this would throw millions out of work and “destroy the Medical Society,” whoever that is, which earns her group 100 points. (Sizemore doesn’t inquire as to why smallpox, scurvy, polio, pellagra, rabies, and any number of other diseases were given the ol’ heave-ho.) Feeling his oats, Sizemore—duded up as the scariest chemo patient since Steve Guttenberg in Don’t Tell Her It’s Me—torments the President and his gang of idiots with sophomoric questions about toner cartridges and won’t let Abney go to the bathroom. What kind of a fiend is he? We find out, sort of, in a non-tension-filled confrontation in the hallway:

As The Genius Club drags on and on and on, characterization is thrown out the window for the sake of argumentation (one minute Abney is a liberal who brags of aiding the poor, the next she’s a neo-objectivist I-got-mine type; Moon, who allegedly wrote a book called Capitalism Is The Savior Of The World, blames the oil companies for scuttling the electric car), and despite the heavy-handed score, tension utterly fails to build in the world’s least thrilling thriller. The entire cast (and the screenplay most of all) perfectly illustrates the maxim that it’s hard for a dumb person to portray a smart person. And through it all, Sizemore, who apparently is being forced to recite his dialogue by shoving the camera an inch away from his face at all times and denying him the coffee he desperately needs to stay awake, attempts to salvage his godawful lines with maddeningly hammy improv, as when he denies being a terrorist by impersonating Mr. T.

From the nonsensical beginning to the ludicrous middle to the endless end, the main problem with The Genius Club isn’t that it’s predictable, or that it’s boring (although good grief, is it boring), or even that it ends up as heavy-handed, mawkish, simplistic religious propaganda. The main problem is that it’s a movie about smart people that was written and directed by a guy who clearly isn’t all that smart, and who has no idea how actual smart people talk, act, or think. Chey’s conception of intellectual discourse and social philosophy is a dopey mix of juvenile conspiracy theories, half-baked theology, and the kind of brain-teasers you find on the backs of diner menus. His arguments for faith are the kind you encounter from someone who’s never heard a genuine counter-argument (or maybe never understood one), and his characterizations are one-dimensional cartoons written by someone who wants to advance an argument instead of tell a story. He’s the kind of person who hinges a critical moment of his narrative on… well, on scenes like this:

How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? The percentage would be a lot higher if the movie wasn’t so ungodly long. It takes place over 24 hours, and there are moments it seems like it’s unfolding in real time. There’s not enough legitimate story here for an hour-long TV episode, but it boasts a gaseous 119-minute run time; if you were to subtract all the padding—the D.C. cityscapes, the uninformative news clips, the characters reading from Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and the endlessly recycled stock footage of war and chaos—it would probably be half as long, and the good bits (mostly Sizemore’s desperate overacting, or Baldwin saying something idiotic) would represent a bigger chunk of the total time. As it stands, probably 2-3% of The Genius Club wasn’t a waste. But it still can’t top Slap Shot 2: Breaking The Ice as the nadir of Stevie B’s career.

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