My Favorite Movies – Real Genius (1985)

10 Jan

By Tanner Smith

Is the science in this outrageous comedy accurate? I like to think so. The way “Real Genius” balances wicked smarts and broad humor is enough to convince me that this movie was indeed made by real geniuses. Director Martha Coolidge (“Valley Girl,” “Rambling Rose”) and her team of writers (Neal Isreal, Pat Proft, & Peter Torokvei) obviously did a lot of research before going into this project, but even if they didn’t, I like to believe you really could do all the things the movie’s characters do if you had the wit and knowhow.

“Real Genius” is not merely one of the funnier movies about smart people (if not the funniest, period)–it’s also one of the smartest and most fun.

Although, strangely enough, it starts out rather strange. After a bland opening-credits sequence set to a lounge song followed by a biting government-experiment satire in the same vein as “Dr. Strangelove” and “WarGames,” you wonder where this film is going. Then we’re introduced to our pompous antagonist, Professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton, perfect at playing a pompous ass), who recruits 15-year-old Mitch (Gabe Jarret) into his university study of laser physics. Why? Where are we going from here?

And then…Chris Knight enters the picture. Chris Knight, played marvelously and brilliantly by Val Kilmer, is also on the laser team and is Mitch’s roommate. He’s very intelligent, but to Mitch’s disappointment, he’s a goof-off who uses his smarts to have fun rather than work hard.

This is when the rug is pulled out from under us, as Chris interacts with Mitch, Dr. Hathaway, and others, and we realize two important things that factor into the enjoyment for the rest of the movie: that this is a comedy and that this character is going make it fun for all of us. Chris and Mitch have a nice brotherly relationship throughout the film, as Chris teaches Mitch to loosen up and have fun once in a while–he does that for all of his dorm-mates, such as crafting an ice skating rink in the dormitory hall and turning the assembly hall into a swimming pool to throw a party with aspiring beauticians. (This guy knows how to party!) He’ll even help Mitch get revenge on a bully by dismantling the jerk’s car and reassembling it in his own room.

I love this guy! His misadventures elevate a smart comedy to a greater level. And Val Kilmer plays him flawlessly–I wholeheartedly believe this is a smart dude who knows when to keep going and when to take things serious; this is no one-dimensional party animal. (Also a plus: this is a college I would have loved to attend…maybe I did attend it!)

What makes “Real Genius” even more fun is when it gets revealed that Dr. Hathaway has been paid by the CIA to craft a laser weapon for them and is hiring these college scientists to build it because, again, he’s an arrogant ass. Neither Chris nor Mitch nor Hathaway’s slimy toady Kent (Robert Prescott) ask any questions about this laser because all they care about is passing the course and moving on to bigger things in life. But late in the film, after they successfully finish building the laser, they realize they’ve been had and decide to get even, leading to…well, I won’t give it away here, but it’s perfectly fitting for the intelligences of all involved.

Another key character who lights up the screen whenever she appears is Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), a hyperactive student who becomes Mitch’s love interest. (Never mind the age difference–it’s more cute and quirky than icky.) She never sleeps, is always working on a project, and of course, like the other characters, is highly intelligent–she’s even self-aware to the point where she accepts Mitch because he’s not afraid of her as the other guys are (even when she follows him into the men’s restroom one morning to show a sweater she knitted for him–awkward!). Does she have a disorder or is she on speed? They don’t say, but…it’s the ’80s and it’s college, so I wouldn’t rule out the second possibility.

Oh, and there’s also Laszlo Holyfeld (Jonathan Gries) who is a literal closet case. (No, for real–he disappears from Chris & Mitch’s closet into a secret tunnel to his underground home.) He’s the smartest and most eccentric character of the bunch.

Overall, “Real Genius” is a smart, fun comedy that I enjoy coming back to every now and again. And I have to credit most of that to Val Kilmer as Chris Knight–he is this movie.

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