Retro Cinema: Real Genius (1985) - Reviewed

The '80s was a decade filled with throwaway comedies, the bulk of which focused on repetitive lewd humor or repetitive clichés of the teenager's plight. Martha Coolidge's charming departure, Real Genius bucked this trend by presenting a solid ensemble and a crowd pleasing story about the power of creativity and the importance of having a good time as a means to combat the darkness of a world gone mad. Featuring a riotous lead performance by Val Kilmer, a deliriously memorable script, and a pulsing high profile soundtrack, Real Genius would go on to achieve cult status and has remained an essential entry into the American '80s cinematic canon to this day. 

Mitch (a prodigy) is recruited to attend a high profile university, where he is partnered with a legendary, but rebellious senior to work on a mysterious project involving high powered lasers. The duo and their friends soon learn that their efforts are being conscripted by the CIA for weapons technology and they decide to fight back with an arsenal of high tech pranks and comedic abandon. Val Kilmer's iconoclastic approach to Chris Knight mirrors the plight of the gifted outsider, but Kilmer's committal to the comedy is what enriches his performance. Most films portray abnormal intelligence as awkward, even hostile, but Kilmer's Knight is having too much fun bucking conformity to devolve into caricature.

At its core, Neal Israel, Pat Proft, and Peter Torokvel's script is about the many incarnations of intelligence and the different roads one can travel when grappling with the adult themes of loyalty and consequences as well as the brutal truth of idols being all too human once unmasked. B movie legend Jon Gries’ scene stealing performance as Laslow is of one extreme, echoing the hermit tendencies of those whom society has misunderstood or taken advantage of. On the opposite end of the spectrum lies William Atherton's opportunistic sellout Hathaway. While Knight is the balance, Gabriel Jarret's Mitch is the lens through which these archetypes are explored. His scenes with Kilmer are the centerpiece, with mentor and student learning from another as they overcome adversity to embrace friendship and morality. 

The campus was modelled after Caltech, with students serving as consultants and extras. Phil Abramson's set decoration is meticulous with some hilarious Easter eggs hidden throughout the dorm at the center of the action. Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography captures the happenings with an interesting mix of Hughes-esque Americana blended with shadowy neon corridors and raucous pool parties, synthesizing the perfect concoction of the era. There is sex and hinted upon violence, but Real Genius's strength is in its refusal to devolve. This can be seen in one of Kilmer's best moments, where Laslow imparts his theory of the laser's purpose. Watching Kilmer's Knight work through the ramifications with flittering, regretful eyes punctuated by ketchup stained lips is the perfect summation of the film’s intent. Telling a story about sexually awkward college students had been done amazingly well a year prior. While Revenge of the Nerds turned up the dials on profane humor and the bleak side of the college experience, Real Genius opts to explore the brighter, but still resonant side of the college experience for those with astronomical intellects and while it sometimes falters with a misplaced gag, for the most part, it works.

The soundtrack is filled with titans of the decade, including Don Henley and Tears for Fears. While the ending rendition of Everybody Wants to Rule the World is easily the film's most memorable sequence, Henley's All She Wants to Do is Dance during the Pool Party is perhaps a better representation of the film's essence. Even at its most risqué, Real Genius is perfectly respectable and that only increases its attractiveness. Who knew nerds could be this sexy? 

Available now on Huluplus or for On Demand streaming, Real Genius is a classic film from an era in which recklessness and excess were celebrated. Its undeniable charm is in how the film embraces the lighter side of this idea through a wonderfully constructed script and a delightful cast. If you're looking to relive some of your youth or are discovering this gem for the first time, this is an '80s staple that demands your attention. Memorable, uncommonly hilarious dialogue melds with a perfectly assembled soundtrack to deliver a feel good story about lab coats, brotherhood, and abnormally large amount of popcorn.

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-Kyle Jonathan