Monday, September 28, 2015

Real Genius

1985's REAL GENIUS is largely a lighthearted teen comedy in much the same vein of so many others of its time, but at its core is a serious drama of exploitation and burnout.  My teenage self was certainly aware and interested in this element, though I responded more to the parade of jokes and wisecracks and intrigue of the plot. The film could've been a much heavier examination, documenting the pressures of life in a Cal Tech-like school for the enormously gifted.  Add to that a egocentric professor who is secretly planning to sell the laser technology his students are sweating over to the CIA who aspire to less than ethical uses for it.

That is the plot of this film, briefly summarized.  REAL GENIUS does touch on several potentially straight faced topics but clearly favors the humor to be found within.  For example, one former student wunderkind of the 1970s named Laszlo (Jon Gries) had apparently suffered a breakdown once he discovered that his I.Q. was fostering weaponry.  He's shown like a wraith,  still wandering the campus years later,  parking in a secret enclave where he spends the day duplicating entry tickets for a Frito Lay contest to greatly increase his odds of winning.  The main characters Mitch (Gabe Jarrett), a 15 year old recruited out of high school, and Chris (Val Kilmer), sardonic resident genius who's about to graduate, look with amusement and intrigue as Laszlo disappears into their closet - the portal to his domecile.

Professor Hathaway (William Atherton at his smug best) is the blowhard overseeing development of said laser.  His team also includes the brown nosing Kent (Robert Prescott), none too pleased that Mitch has been put in charge of the project.  Hijinks reminiscent of many other youth comedies ensue. Lots of comic revenge and humiliation.  A few penis jokes. But as the students at "Pacific Tech" are way smarter than your average acne ridden Hollywood teen just seeking to get laid,  the gags showcase their intelligence.  Ingenuity to have fun (creating temporary ice for skating in a dormitory hallway, slicing liquid nitrogen to use in vending machines) and to get even (dismantling and later reassembling a car in someone's bedroom).  So while REAL GENIUS often (very entertainingly) plays like a breezy comedy, you note that these characters are realistic: awkward, driven, prone to stress.  How unusual it was to see a character like Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), a breathless, super hyperkinetic overachiever who is nonetheless as painfully awkward with social dances as her fellow geeks.

The screenplay (by several writers who've penned their share of broad comedy) incorporates a lot of science, and director Martha Cooledge spent several months researching.  Myth Busters have debunked some of the wilder bits, including the "popcorn house", but there's just enough smart chat to convince us the filmmakers know what of what they speak.  The plotline involving Hathaway's duplicity and his dealings with the CIA may feel a bit stale, leftover from other spy tales, and the climax - amusing as it is- may likewise feel contrived when maybe we just wanted more of the fun school stuff.  But it all works.  Kilmer has never been more appealing, and is quite funny.

But I always come back to the background - the idea that a respected professor would entice and abuse his students in such ways.  There is a disturbing undercurrent here. There is a serious scene here and there. But  I think REAL GENIUS tempers the seriousness quite well and opted for the right approach.

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