Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Every geek has his day, and the mid-Eighties offered prime exposure for the dorks of the world. They started to pop up as the protagonists in a mix of flicks, including 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds and 1985’s Weird Science.
For my money, the best of the bunch also came from 1985 in the form of Real Genius. At least that’s what I used to think. I always enjoyed Genius and thought it seemed funny, clever and warm.
I hadn’t seen Genius in quite some time before I got the DVD, so I looked forward to the experience. Unfortunately, it didn’t appear quite as amusing as I remembered. Although the movie had some moments, for the most part it came across as smug and very dated.
Genius follows Mitch Taylor (Gabe Jarret), a 15-year-old brainiac who gets accepted to a prestigious math and science university by TV celebrity professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton). Nerdy Mitch gets paired with an older roommate named Chris Knight (Val Kilmer). A former wonderboy of Mitch’s ilk, Chris loosened up considerably over the years and now is a wisecracking party boy, though he continues to exhibit brilliance when desired.
An antagonism develops between Mitch and Kent (Robert Prescott), Hathaway’s brown-nosing assistant. Clearly Kent resents the attention the new boy gets, and he tries to make him unhappy. Chris helps come to his rescue, however, and he also teaches Mitch that there’s more to life than just books and studying.
Hathaway pushes the students to develop a powerful laser. What the kids don’t know is that Hathaway has a deal with the government to create a new ultrapowerful weapons system; he threatens to flunk Chris if he doesn’t succeed. This puts pressure on Chris and the others and also sets up a moral dilemma when they discover the purpose of the laser.
Actually, “moral dilemma” is too strong a term, for Genius treats matters far too simplistically for me to regard anything is such a vague manner. That offered probably the most disappointing aspect of Genius: the black and white way. The movie clearly comes as a product of its era, as it displays heaping helpings of anti-Reagan politics. Admittedly, these remain unstated; we never hear any formal reference to the president or anything else that would specifically identify the period, although at one point, Chris does wear a T-shirt that appears to show a caricature of the president.
However, even without such exact labeling, the movie’s intentions seem clear. The laser system Hathaway develops obviously parallels Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative, and the film makes it very clear that its creators think this is a very bad idea. Its proponents come across as insidious and nasty; all Atherton needs is a moustache to twirl.
Don’t mistake my criticism of the film as an endorsement of Reagan’s politics. I don’t intend to use this review as a soapbox, but I sympathize with the filmmakers’ thoughts. My objection relates to the clumsy manner in which they execute the material. The movie’s liberal tendencies aren’t limited to their era, but the style used seems very “Eighties”. While a Seventies liberal flick like Harold and Maude adopted a self-righteous tone, Genius seems more sardonic and smug. The flick takes on a tone of irony and smugness that seems very typical for its era.
It doesn’t age well. While Kilmer’s Chris seemed funny and clever 15 years ago, now he just appears arrogant and obnoxious. Kilmer does very well in the role, and he exhibits a lot of talent for light comedy; it’d be interesting to see him try more parts of this sort. However, the character is so patronizing and superior that he gets old pretty quickly.
Actually, the acting of Genius offers its strongest aspects. Kilmer almost overcomes the flaws inherent in his role, and Atherton also makes Hathaway a very entertaining villain. Yes, he seems excessively evil, but Atherton portrays him in the same wonderfully amusing weaselly manner that made similar characters in Die Hard and Ghostbusters interesting. Jarret offers a mildly weak link as simpy Mitch, but other than his fluffy hairstyle, he does decently in the role.
Honestly, I felt very disappointed by Real Genius. Some of my favorite comedies from the Eighties aged well - like Ruthless People - but Genius largely fell flat. The movie provided a couple of amusing moments, but otherwise it seemed smug and condescending and left me largely cold.
Trivia note: look for Dean Devlin in a minor role as one of the college nerds; he turns up in the “Tanning Invitational” scene as “Milton”. If you don’t know the name, Devlin gained greater success as the producer of flicks like Independence Day.