There are some movies so perfect, and so perfectly strange, that they survive all their anachronisms: the ugly clothing, the forgotten stars, and the outdated technology, to become transcendent classics, applicable to all time. Real Genius, made in 1985 and sort-of starring Val Kilmer (he is not the star, but he receives top billing and much of the screen time, as well as all the best jokes), is such a film — despite the numerous references to masturbation (or perhaps because of them). Few movies I have ever seen are as original, or as deeply intelligent, and none wear their silliness so sweetly on their sleeves. Real Genius was the first movie I ever saw that made being smart look cool, and made college look like a place where people used their brains to have fun, rather than just imbibing cheap liquor.
It’s also the funniest movie I’ve ever seen.
Basic Plot: Mitch (Gabriel Jarret), is a teenage science prodigy, recruited early to a fictionalized MIT/Cal-Tech hybrid called Pacific Tech, by the school’s narcissistic laser specialist, Dr. Hathaway (William Atherton). Mitch is desperate to find somewhere he fits in, and hopes that college might be the place. To his horror, he discovers that the student he most idolized, a fellow child prodigy named Chris Knight (Val Kilmer), is now his degenerate, slobbish, smart-mouthed antithesis… and roommate. The other students in his dorm are strange, but charming, including girl-genius motormouth Jordan, on whom Mitch develops a serious crush.
As Mitch tries to navigate a tentative friendship with Chris, the workload he’s been assigned by Dr. Hathaway threatens to overwhelm him, and his arch-nemesis, Kent (Robert Prescott), tries to break him by sabotaging his work. And, to make things even weirder, there appears to be a man living in his closet.
Mitch is saved from madness, of course, by Chris’s hijinks. The tone of the film shifts a bit when the team of Mitch, Chris, Jordan and others discover that the work they have been doing for Dr. Hathaway is all part of a nefarious secret military project. How they take their revenge against Dr. Hathaway, using Kent, is one of the most creative and delightful revenge fantasies ever filmed.
Real Genius‘ greatest strength lies in its good-hearted belief that intelligence can trump corruption and cruelty, and that science should be used to improve our lives. Even better is that this message is well-buried beneath layers of funny dialog and goofy pranks, so that, even as it makes its intensely moral point — that genius brings with it responsibility — the audience is too busy laughing to mind.
Scenes to Watch For: There are so many great moments packed into this film that it’s nearly impossible to pick a single one as best, but that award might fall to the team’s plot to get back at Kent and obtain information they need to scupper Dr. Hathaway’s plans. They knock Kent out and implant a small receiver in his braces, turning his head into a speaker. Mitch then pretends to be Jesus in order to milk Kent for information. The best lines come at the end of the scene:
Mitch: “I want you to think about what you’ve done, Kent, and from now on… stop playing with yourself.”
Kent (mystified and slowly covering his crotch): “It is God!”
But the entire scene is gold.
Real Genius is ripe with quotable, hysterical dialog. Some of my favorite lines:
Mitch: “Something strange happened to me this morning…”
Chris: “Is it a dream where you see yourself standing in sort-of sun god robes on a pyramid with a thousand naked women screaming and throwing little pickles at you?”
Chris: “Why am I the only person who has that dream?”
Actors to Love: Of course, everyone loves Val Kilmer in this film, as he’s both gorgeous and funny. But props have to be given to the entire ensemble cast. Gabriel Jarret is perfectly nerdy and sincere as Mitch, who is, in the end, the main character of the film. Kent (Robert Prescott) is ridiculous and just stupid enough to be easily neutralized and yet sympathetic. Our main female character, Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), is a wonderful mix of smart, funny, nerdy and sexy, with just enough naivete to keep her approachable. Absolutely everyone gives pitch-perfect performances.
In the end, if you can tolerate the somewhat crude humor, this is a perfect film to share with pre-teen and teenage kids. Glorifying intelligence and responsibility, it will keep everyone mightily entertained while making shows like Big Bang Theory look like pathetic stand-ins for the real genius on the screen.
Enjoy, and let me know what you think.