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“All my filth is in alphabetical order. This, for example, was under ‘H’ for ‘Toy.’” —Val Kilmer, Real Genius
“Sure, Toby, fine. You go to the movies and daydream, but this Revenge Of The Nerds ain’t reality. It’s Hollywood bullshit.” —Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar, American Splendor
By 1985, the “nerd cycle,” as my A.V. Club cohort Kyle Ryan calls it, was still in full effect, but on the downslope of whatever minor creative tremor had rippled through the culture. The subgenre had reached its apotheosis the year before with Revenge Of The Nerds, the Porky’s franchise was on its little-loved second sequel (sporting the opportunistic title Porky’s Revenge), and the video market was being pelted by noxious campus comedies like Fraternity Vacation, which tilted the boobs-and-pranks formula definitively into sourness and misogyny. (Let’s not forget that the chief nerd in Revenge Of The Nerds bests the chief jock by essentially raping his girlfriend in a funhouse.) All were derivatives of Animal House, but few were as much fun as they promised to be, perhaps because the nerd/jock types were so broadly defined that neither were terribly relatable. Jocks were bullying Neanderthals; nerds were reedy little pipsqueaks who were, in their own way, just as narrow and mean-spirited as their adversaries.
Enter Real Genius, and not a moment too soon. Here’s a movie that has all the elements of a standard nerd comedy: Pranks? Yes. Shenanigans? You betcha. A crusty-dean type? The best ever. It also features mild semi-nudity, montage sequences set to forgotten (though winning) songs by obscure ’80s pop outfits (The C.S. Angels’ “I’m Falling”; Chaz Jankel’s “Number One”), and comeuppances galore. But while Real Genius more or less follows the formula, the film gets plenty of separation in its particulars. Its tone is overwhelmingly sweet and whimsical: The nerds are out for revenge only when provoked, and they always exact it with something silly and light-hearted. Mostly, though, they’re trying to break out of their intellectual cocoons and bring some balance and fun to their lives. That doesn’t mean abandoning nerd life for jock life—quite the contrary, the film has more respect for applied braininess than any other in the genre—but figuring out how to let a little spontaneity and chaos into a routine as orderly as a pocket protector.
And who better to play that agent of chaos than Val Kilmer, who was once enormously charismatic before Jim Morrison, Batman, and other acts of self-seriousness led him down the wrong path? (Though flashes of the old Kilmer have occurred over the years, most notably in New Cult Canon entry Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which is not coincidentally a throwback to another era.) The Val Kilmer of the mid-’80s was a joy, an actor with a special talent for making arrogance and pretty-boy aloofness seem playful and winning, whether as the preening American pop star behind the Iron Curtain in Top Secret! or as Tom Cruise’s aerial/weirdly sexual rival in Top Gun. In Real Genius, Kilmer’s rebellious super-nerd is Southern California’s answer to Groucho Marx, eager to zing every stuffed shirt and slow-witted Margaret Dumont-type that crosses his path. The “memorable quotes” page on the film’s IMDb entry looks nearly as long as the script itself.
Kilmer plays Chris Knight, a genius among geniuses at Pacific Tech who has lately forsaken his former studiousness in favor of non-stop fun, coasting through his senior year on his reputation and a collection of novelty T-shirts. First seen touring the campus of a prospective employer in an “I [Heart] Toxic Waste” T-shirt while wearing a pair of novelty Martian antennae on his head, Chris has rebelled so hard against academic austerity that he’s embraced slackerdom with the zealotry of a religious convert. He shouts from windows and rooftops, he chastises the “moles and trolls” at Pacific Tech for studying too hard (“we only had one entry into the Madame Curie lookalike contest and he was disqualified later”), and he makes a point of cluttering up his dorm room, just for the sake of disrupting the dull order of things. He’s also an irreverent wiseass, especially in the presence of serious people:
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Though Chris is supposed to be working on a high-tech laser, his real project is his new roommate Mitch (Gabe Jarret), an earnest 15-year-old super-nerd who comes to campus in hush puppies and a suit, sweet but terrified. It’s a credit to the film that Mitch doesn’t come across as a wheezing, inhaler-puffing Revenge Of The Nerds-style geek, but a kid whose intelligence has left him socially isolated. Chris identifies with Mitch, whom he sees as very much like his younger self (“I missed me, so I wanted to room with me again”), and he makes it his mission to convince the kid that devoting yourself monastically to academics will lead to burnout. As proof of this, he cites the case of Lazlo Hollyfeld (Jon Gries), a former Big Brain who cracked under pressure and now lives in a steam tunnel he accesses from their closet. But Chris’ party plans for Mitch are disrupted by their snooty advisor, Professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton), who presses them to work on a powerful laser. What they don’t realize is that Hathaway is developing the laser for a secret military project that involves vaporizing targets from space.
Much of Real Genius’ greatness comes from its infectious whimsy and generosity of spirit, which extends to many memorable characters in the cast, including Hollyfeld, who now invests the force of his intellect to gaming a Frito-Lay contest, and the wonderful Michelle Meyrink as Jordan, a manic busybody who spends one sleepless night knitting Mitch a sweater. Yet I want to give a few words to Hathaway, who embodies the sort of stuffy academic that always gets sent up in nerd comedies, but transcends the type. As played by Atherton, who would repeat the act a few years later as an unctuous TV reporter in Die Hard, Jerry is an inspired parody of campus elitism, in that he just comes out and articulates the contempt he has for the great unwashed. Lesser geniuses like his toadie Kent (Robert Prescott) are reduced to picking up his dry cleaning (“It goes from God to Jerry to you to the cleaners”), but he’s particularly unsparing of the lumps who work for a living. (To the men building his new house: “You’re laborers. You should be laboring. That’s what you get for not having an education.”) For a jokester like Chris, who has as much contempt for haughty academics as Jerry has for the common man, he’s the perfect foil:
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Real Genius was written by Neal Israel and Pat Proft, who was responsible for Police Academy and contributed to scripts for Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spoofs like The Naked Gun trilogy and the (Abrahams-only) Hot Shots series. Silly exchanges like the one in the above clip (“I want to see a lot more of you around the lab.” “Fine, I’ll gain weight.”) are vintage Israel-Proft shtick, rooted in vaudeville and joke books, and actors like Kilmer and Atherton are skilled enough to bring out their wit. But the quiet MVP of Real Genius is director Martha Coolidge, who hits the expected comic beats while also drawing Chris, Mitch, Hollyfeld, and Jordan into a friendship worth caring about. For all the film’s razzing of academia, it’s not anti-intellectual in the least; these characters care about the pursuit of knowledge and how it’s applied. Coolidge brought a similar sensitivity to the 1983 comedy Valley Girl, and she’s a big reason why Real Genius stands out from other films in the “nerd cycle,” which are defined more by meanness and pandering raunch.
Granted, Real Genius isn’t that far removed from the average campus comedy: The cliquishness seems more appropriate to high school than college, the requisite juvenile sex jokes are there (if funnier than usual), and a lot gets accomplished through montage. But even the revenge pranks, a staple of the genre, are more inspired and good-natured than usual, especially a finale that not only sticks it to Hathaway and his military cronies, but does something more productive than mere sabotage. These characters want to leave the world a little better than they found it—and their invention, conceived for classified murder, self-destructs deliciously.
January 27: Series 7: The Contenders
February 10: The Last Seduction
February 24: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas