MF 348 : Summer movie series: Real Genius (1985)
Updated: Jun 16, 2022
Note: the summer movie series will air on Fridays.
A truly smart teen comedy
When Real Genius came out in 1985, the only thing I remember was the marketing campaign. The ads showcased star Val Kilmer ("Chris Knight") in a cool t-shirt and sunglasses floating in a contraption made from a sunchair and balloons. If I had been a little older, (I was still in my puppy love phase with The Karate Kid) this movie would have caught my attention. It wasn't until around 9 years later that I discovered this hidden gem on a Saturday afternoon after a trip to Blockbuster.
This movie is ostensibly about nerds, geeks and misfits. However, unlike most films from that decade, this one didn't denigrate them or make them out to be a sideshow. Instead, Real Genius gives us a smart script that celebrates how smart its characters are. While it does veer into stereotypes with Mitch Taylor's (Gabe Jarrett) pocket protector and Kent's (Robert Prescott) braces and ridiculous bowl haircut, the characters aren‘t too cartoony or generic. Rather, we get an intriguing plot showcasing really smart kids trying to survive the pressures and expectations of being at a prestigious university. The film's antagonist, Professor Jerry Hathaway, played by the scene-chewing, quintessential 80's a-hole, William Atherton (did he ever play a good guy?), knows how bright these kids are and yet, how innocent. He takes advantage of this to manipulate their talents and ambitions to crack the code on a secret government weapons project.
Along the way, the movie juggles many colorful characters. Mitch is the teen genius who's completely out of place amongst his college peers. Chris Knight is the former prodigy superstar, now a senior. He has ambitious plans for his career while embracing his latent inner-rebel as he tries to steer Mitch away from a lonely path to burnout. The movie also provides us with an absent minded inventor in Jordan Cochran, played by a perfectly cast Michelle Meyrink, and a foil in Kent, a Hathaway sycophant who bullies Mitch but isn't completely unredeemable. We also get an "old Jedi" of sorts in Jon Gries who provides just the right level of eccentric quirk as Lazlo Hollyfeld, a once brilliant student from the 1970s. He becomes a sort of moral compass for the group.
Real Genius doesn't always succeed in pulling off its multiple storylines. At times, it doesn't know if it's a teen comedy or a spy thriller. Moreover, there are one too many characters that don't get enough development to be essential to the plot. Case in point: Patti D'Arbanville has a great screen presence and her character should have had more to do as Sherry Nugil than simply be the film’s sexpot. However, despite its flaws, this is a smart movie about smart kids that expects its audience to keep up. This alone distinguishes it from most of its contemporaries. Moreover, the script and solid cast give us characters who are relatable despite their mile-high IQs.
Real Genius (1985) deserves a good grade and a place on your summer movie watchlist.
This is a smart 1980s teen comedy that embraces and celebrates its smart characters without making them the punchline.
The film is filled with funny, clever moments that are organic to the story and characters.
Too many side plots and characters that don't get enough screen time or development.
At times the movie doesn't quite know what it wants to be: teen comedy or spy thriller. It doesn't quite pull off being both.
***1/2 (out of five)
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