I was thinking of the immortal words of Socrates, who said, “… I drank what?”
The summer of 1985 saw the peak of the 80’s teen comedy craze. The entire decade, at least for my generation, was dominated by teen comedies. It wasn’t just the John Hughes cannon, it was everything. 1985 alone saw Back to the Future (one of two Michael J. Fox comedies that year), The Sure Thing, Better off Dead, The Goonies, two John Hughes films, Fright Night, Just One of the Guys, etc, etc., etc. As a results of this, a few movies that got lumped into the category of “teen movies” were neglected. In any other year, they might have been hits. But it was hard to be noticed in such a crowded field.
Real Genius, a college comedy directed by Martha Coolidge, was probably the biggest victim of that crowded market. Released in August of 1985, a few days after Weird Science, it kind of got overshadowed by the Hughes film. And that’s a pity because while I would not describe the films as “great”, it is quite good, endlessly quotable and one of my favorite guilty pleasures.
This? This is ice. This is what happens to water when it gets too cold. This? This is Kent. This is what happens to people when they get too sexually frustrated.
The plot, it goeth thusly: a genius high school student is recruited to attend a prestigious university by a professor trying to develop a powerful laser for the military (although his students don’t know this). He is roomed with Chris Knight, a prior wunderkind who is close to finishing his degree. Hijinks ensue and, at some point, a house is destroyed with popcorn.
The film is very solidly made. Coolidge, who also did the under-rated Valley Girl, keeps things moving and lets her actors act. Val Kilmer had already shown a flare for comedy in Top Secret and is in top form here. Michelle Meyrink, one of my favorite supporting actresses of the 80’s, heads a rock solid supporting cast. The film has a decent plot, manages to work in some suspense and really doesn’t have a weak link (although the thread involving Nugil is a bit weak).
But what really makes the film is the characters. One of the few to recognize how good the film was was Roger Ebert:
“Real Genius” allows every one of its characters the freedom to be complicated and quirky and individual. That’s especially true of Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), a hyperactive woman student who talks all the time and never sleeps and knits things without even thinking about it, and follows Mitch into the john because she’s so busy explaining something that she doesn’t even notice what he’s doing. I recognize students like this from my own undergraduate days. One of the most familiar types on campus (and one of the rarest in the movies) is the self-styled eccentric, who develops a complex of weird personality traits as a way of clearing space and defining himself.
I was in high school when I saw the film but, when I went on to college (and especially grad school) I met people who … well, they weren’t quite as exaggerated as Jordan … but they did have their quirks and their brilliance and their own stories. While Jordan does serve as a bit of a love interest for Mitch, she’s her own character, has some of the best lines and has a lot in common with some of the brilliant women I’ve met in my life.
And it is the characters who contribute to the film’s true glory: the dialogue. I could literally quote the movie all day long. Here is one I use a lot:
Jerry, if you think that by threatening me you can get me to be your slave… Well, that’s where you’re right. But – and I am only saying this because I care – there are a lot of decaffeinated brands on the market today that are just as tasty as the real thing.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I use that phrasing quite often (usually ending in, “… not sure where I was going with this.”)
As I said, Real Genius is not a great film. But it is a criminally underrated one. It should be just as iconic as The Breakfast Club or Back to the Future but just had the misfortune to be released at the wrong time. When I mentioned it on Twitter, several followers responded with their favorite quotes. So that gives me a little hope that this hidden gem is not doomed to be forgotten.
Update: After posting this, I had a conversation with my brother, who also likes this movie. One of things he pointed out: none of the characters is stupid or acts stupidly. No one is disgusting, stupid or mean jut to be “funny”. The heroes conflict with Kent, but in the end they pull him from the house and have a good laugh over it. Even Jerry, the film’s main “villain”, is a realized character with some of the best lines.
This is something Real Genius shares with John Hughes’ films, which also have a heart and an affection for the characters. It’s kind of rare that a Hughes film has a bad guy and even the worst — say Vernon From The Breakfast Club — are treated like real people.
That’s something that’s often missing from comedy today. And one of the big reasons we have so few good ones anymore.