Movie review: ‘Real Genius’

You know, there can actually be a good comedy about college students without having to reach into the R-rated barrel of tricks, such as the profane but completely hilarious humor in “Road Trip” (click here for my review) or what you find in that back-in-the-day college funfest “Revenge of the Nerds” (click here for my review) – much less than the all-time classic college flick “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” The best example I can find is in “Real Genius,” which is a college coming-of-age tale that blends humor with science and a bit of anti-military vandalism. It’s difficult to find, but you’ll have fun when you do. Val Kilmer is very good here and you’ll enjoy him doing a bit of comedy (almost as good as he was in “Top Secret!” – click here for my review).

‘Real Genius’
(1985; 108 minutes; rated PG; directed by Martha Coolidge and starring Val Kilmer, Gabriel Jarret and Michelle Meyrink)

TRUE INTELLECT MEANS TRUE REVENGE HERE

(NOTE: I updated links in this review on July 16, 2016.)

The early 1980s were fertile ground for lowbrow, raunchy comedy aimed at the high school and college crowds. From 1980’s “Caddyshack” (golf) to 1982’s “Porky’s” (high school — click here for my review) to 1984’s “Revenge of the Nerds” (college — click here for my review) and even to the cult (and my) favorite “Bachelor Party” with Tom Hanks in 1984 (twentysomethings — click here for my review), they all had the raunchy factor.

However, you can get lots of laughs without the raunch if you check out “Real Genius” – it has some college hijinks from putting a car in a dorm room to how to destroy a house with popcorn (a trick that doesn’t work according to TV’s “MythBusters.” whose stars tried it in a test).

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Real Genius” is the story of an honors student (“Mitch Taylor,” played by Gabriel Jarret) who heads off to college early to work with a celebrated scientist’s team at an elite university (“Pacific Tech” – and not the real Pacific Institute of Technology in Atlanta). The scientist (“Prof. Jerry Hathaway,” played by William Atherton) is pretty much an arrogant jerk, but one who’s moving forward with a government laser program to develop a space-based weapon. He needs the brightest minds and has added one to his stable.

The young student is paired with a graduating senior (“Chris Knight,” played by Val Kilmer) and top dog on the research team – but the older student is having something of a senior year crisis and soon embroils the younger student in his escapades. The two team up to take the laser project to where, unknown to them, the military wants it to go. Along the way are the inevitable hijinks, problems, a personal crisis and just about everything else.

The students finally find out that the professor is underhandedly using them to develop a weapon and have to do their own mission to spoil the weapon while getting even with the professor.

The film’s director Martha Coolidge has a nice Hollywood pedigree (well, at least she did “Valley Girl” before “Real Genius”) and does an OK job in keeping the pace nice and the movie moving forward. Sometimes things are a bit forced, such as when Kilmer and Jarret meet or that the test of the weapon looks similar to the JFK motorcade (kind of a ham-handed shot at the military), but it’s excusable with such a likeable film. Coolidge also directed “Lost in Yonkers” as well as individual episodes of TV shows such as “Sex and the City” and most recently the new fall TV series “Madam Secretary.”

Kilmer does a really nice job here. He’s in only his second film (after “Top Secret!”) and the next year he’d hit the heights as “Lt. Tom ‘Iceman’ Kazanski” in Tom Cruise’s megahit “Top Gun.” However, Kilmer does the college boy role nicely and I’m sure you would have liked hanging out with him if he had been your classmate. Kilmer was also in “Heat” with Al Pacino (click here for my review), “The Doors,” “Tombstone” and “Batman Forever.”

Jarret, who is listed in credits as “Gabe” and has also used his real name “Gabriel Kronsberg,” does a good job as the angst-afflicted teen thrust into a college world. He does a wonderful turn being amazed and enthralled by Kilmer while also conveying his vulnerability because of his age. Jarret has also been in “Apollo 13” as well as “Frost/Nixon.”

Atherton pretty much has the slimeball character down pat. You can count on him to do a really wonderful job of it and “Real Genius” is no exception. His portrayal of the arrogant, egotistical professor is spot on. Atherton is money in the bank if you want an audience to hiss anytime they see a character on screen. Atherton was the vapid reporter in “Die Hard” and its first sequel as well as the stressed out bad guy in “Ghostbusters.” His lesser remembered films include “Bio-Dome” as well as a number of TV credits, including “Castle.”

The best supporting performance is by Robert Prescott as the obsequious “Kent,” who is always kissing up to Atherton. Prescott is fun to watch as he is easily put down by the much cooler Kilmer and is hysterical as he talks to “God” after Kilmer and his friends install a transmitter in his braces. Prescott has also been in “Spaceballs,” “The Bourne Legacy” and “Michael Clayton.”

It’s too bad that Deborah Foreman’s character “Susan Decker” was so small and didn’t allow her to flex her acting muscles. Foreman was the lead in “Valley Girl” with Nicolas Cage and could have done much better with expanded time on screen. As it is she does the vamp very well. Foreman was also in the well-received “My Chauffeur” and “April Fool’s Day.”

Jon Gries plays the mysterious braniac “Lazlo Holeyfield,” who is a former student of Atherton’s who lost it and now lives in the steam tunnels below the campus. Gries does a good job as the eccentric scientist who ultimately lands the amorous Patti D’Arbanville, who plays “Sherry Nugil” has tried to sleep with the best minds in the country but finally settles on Gries as the one. Gries has also been in “Men in Black” and the quirky “Napoleon Dynamite” while D’Arbanville has been in “The Fan” and “Modern Problems.”

Canadian-born actor Michelle Meyrink plays the kooky “Jordan” and is a brain with the rest of them but becomes enamored of and by Jarret (D’Arbanville also sets her sights on the much younger man). Meyrink, who has been in several of Coolidge’s works, does a good job as a basic ditz, but pulls it off with a little style. After only 10 acting credits through 1988, Meyrink left the Hollywood scene for family and help start and now teaches at the Actorium Training Center in Canada. She was also in “The Outsiders” and “Revenge of the Nerds.”

Real Genius” was the 66th ranked film at the U.S. box office in 1985 with $12.95 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. It was right behind a really outstanding film that is little-remembered today, “Vision Quest” with $12.99 million. The No. 1 film of the year was “Back to the Future” with $210.6 million.

Here is a list of films from 1975 that I have reviewed:

Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com – quoting two directly today, sorry about that):

  • The prolific (205 credits over five decades) supporting actor specialist Ed Lauter plays government man “David Decker” (he’s also Foreman’s father here). Lauter has done great work in the supporting realm – check out one of his best in the spy thriller “The Amateur.” Lauter died at the age of 74 of mesothelioma in 2013. His last released film was “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” and came out this year and, although deceased, Lauter this year has one film “completed,” one film “post-production” and his final movie was still filming.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “When Chris and Mitch enter the plane, a background technician speaks “Final check: latitude 65 degrees, 19 minutes, longitude 44 degrees, 09 minutes.” These coordinates lie in Russia just below the Arctic Circle near the White Sea, which was a key Soviet, now Russian Federation, naval and submarine base.”
  • Also directly from IMDb.com: “The ‘liquid nitrogen’ coins have baffled viewers for many years, and are considered by many to be a goof. However the very first draft of the script shows that it wasn’t an error. The thermos contains liquid nitrogen, which in turn contains a column of super-cooled CO2 (dry ice), which is what Chris uses in the vending machine.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014.
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