Real Genius (1985) – A Review
Fifteen year-old mega-brain Mitch Taylor (Gabe Jarret) gets recruited by slimy Professor Jerry Hathaway (Willam Atherton) to join Pacific Technical University. There Mitch will work alongside some of the greatest geniuses on the planet, including the legendary young physics wizard Chris Knight (Val Kilmer).
Mitch quickly learns Chris is not exactly the nerdy, straight-laced, pocket protector-wearing, quiet brainy guy he expects to meet. Chris behaves more like an immature, rambunctious adolescent than a young Einstein. He wears bunny slippers, is constantly joking around and doesn’t seem very interested in working too hard. Can this be the same ‘Chris Knight’ Mitch has read about??? Can one of the greatest minds on Earth possibly be walking around wearing antennas on his head and an ‘I Love Toxic Waste’ t-shirt???
Mitch and Chris are assigned to work on a very special laser project for Hathaway. Unbeknownst to them however their work is not being used to benefit humanity. Hathaway is in cahoots with the CIA and once this laser is perfected by the boys the plan is to have it be used as a military weapon!
Can Mitch and Chris get the laser to work? Will Hathaway approve Chris’ graduation? Will Chris’ carefree attitude convince Mitch that letting yourself have some fun be a better approach to life than burying your head in books? Who’s this mysterious man living in their dorm closet? What will the two young geniuses do when they realize their work will be used as a weapon by the government? And how can Professor Hathaway think popcorn is such a vile, disgusting abomination?
Real Genius is a very fun 80’s teen comedy. I remember my friends and I going to see it and being anxious to see the guy who was so good in Top Secret star in a new comedy.
The movie and Kilmer doesn’t disappoint. On its surface Real Genius could be quickly mistaken for just another silly teen comedy with a genius hook. Partying scenes, sexy girls, young characters sticking it to older ones, popular musical needle drops on the soundtrack with little to distinguish from the usual popular teen fare.
Yet, director Martha Coolidge manages to make it more special, a lot smarter, has an interesting story and is much better made than the usual teen movies that filled up the 1980s decade. It’s more John Hughes than Screwballs. It could have easily been a disposable run-of-the-mill teen comedy, but it somehow endures, surprisingly doesn’t feel very dated and holds up thirty-six years later.
Real Genius has plenty of laughs and timeless, quote-worthy lines that fans are still repeating and smiling at all these decades later. It also has enough outrageous silliness and unique hi-tech pranks in it that will make you wish you went to a college like Pacific Tech and were best friends with Chris Knight.
I’ve found myself revisiting it over and over again since first seeing it on opening weekend at the theater in ’85. And it never fails to entertain me.
Kilmer is the face of the film. He was featured on that memorable poster, has the showiest role and not just steals every scene he’s in, it’s more like they’re handed to him. He’s given funny, witty lines, wears colorful, funky wardrobe and he hits it out of the park everytime he’s onscreen. He’s consistently funny throughout.
He plays a character who all teens wish they could be. He’s charming, confident, smart, always has a funny line at the ready, but never comes off smug. A lot of times similar characters can have an arrogance about them by the way the actor plays it, but Kilmer makes Chris Knight someone adolescents will aspire to be. Or at least want to be his friend and hang out with him.
I’m envious of all Kilmer’s cool t-shirts he wears. Those old enough to remember, there was a time when there would be t-shirt stores in the mall where you could buy all those kitschy shirts with goofy stuff printed on them. Like those shirts with a tuxedo on it. I imagine that’s where Chris Knight scored his ‘Roy Rogers’, ‘International Order of Gorillas’, ‘Surf Nicaragua’, ‘The Monkees’ and of course the famed ‘I Love Toxic Waste’ duds.
Fortunately, Real Genius fans who want to emulate the ‘Chris Knight’ look have avenues to explore today. There are online stores that make reproductions of some of his classic t-shirts. His bunny slippers and Heckle and Jeckle slippers might be harder to find.
As in Top Secret, Kilmer shows how good he was at comedy in Real Genius. He’s likable, charismatic. I envision had the filmmakers casted a different actor in the part Real Genius would look very different. It might not work as well as it does thanks to Kilmer.
Top Secret and Real Genius were Kilmer’s two breakthrough roles. It’s too bad he didn’t do more comedies back then. I guess goofy characters like Chris Knight might’ve seemed too lightweight and he wanted to move onto some heavier parts. They might not have been too deep, but he’s a real kick to watch in them.
The following year he’d be in Top Gun and then he’d move into more dramatic roles, like The Doors, Heat, Tombstone, took a whirl as Batman and from there gained a difficult reputation – but that’s another story. He’d pop up in a comedic role here and there since, but Kilmer’s peak in comedies was mainly with his first two films.
Along with Kilmer he’s backed by an effective supporting cast, starting with William Atherton. Atherton had such a great stranglehold playing villains during this time (Ghostbusters, Die Hard) you just loved to hate the guy. If you enjoyed despising Atherton in other films, you’ll find he gets a decent amount of screen time in Real Genius and he’s quite devilishly delicious in it.
Hathaway is putting pressure on Mitch and Chris to finish that laser, since he’s under the gun of the government funding him and are anxious to get their hands on it. Hathaway decides to skip the whole ‘you can’t rush science’ philosophy and will push Chris to get this thing completed, even threatening to flunk him to get results. It appears Hathaway is also embezzling some of that government money to fix up his very picturesque house. He’s not a very nice guy.
Atherton is given various fun bits of business to play with. Hathaway hosts his own science program with an episode devoted to the mysteries of the colon. He yells at the laborers working on his new house, chases away a dog who likes to sit on his lawn, he offhandedly throws snide remarks around. He trots around with the clichéd pompous look of his sweater around his neck. Once you see a character with that look you know it’s probably best to stay away from them.
And it’s hard to like a guy who doesn’t like popcorn! Who doesn’t love popcorn!!! This is of course a setup to a terrific payoff Hathaway gets that fans know all to well. Atherton’s payback is reminiscent to when he got doused with marshmallow in Ghostbusters.
Atherton has his little loyal toadie Kent (Robert Prescott). He’s a student who does all manner of menial jobs to get in with Hathaway. He’s the ultimate ‘yes man’. He reports on misbehaving students, teaches Hathaway’s classes for him and doesn’t care for the attention the young Mitch is now getting from him.
It’s funny, in another 80’s teen comedy Kent would probably be meant to be a nerd in a movie, but in Real Genius, he’s the bully who needs to be dealt with. And Prescott is quite funny, with his goofy hair, ascots, braces, wearing his dickie and as we find out his love for jello. He enjoys playing boss when Hathaway is not around. He’s the type of character you can’t wait to get served a platter of revenge (“It’s a moral imperative!”) and laugh along with our heroes at him when it happens.
I haven’t really mentioned Jarret as the young genius Mitch and that’s really because he was always the weakest part of the film for me. He’s wide-eyed, a little naive and ready to be taken in by the hopes of fitting in at a college with people at his own level. But there was always something very blah about Mitch for me in Real Genius.
Granted, it’s awfully hard to stand out from Kilmer who’s wearing all matter of wardrobe and gunning one-liners nonstop, but Jarret almost bleeds into the background for me and I have much more fun watching the eccentric characters around him.
Maybe that was just inevitable for the character. He’s fine, he fills the part as needed and it’s through him we’re watching the wild world of this genius school unfold. But for a main character he is kind of forgettable.
The best portion with Mitch is his unexpected romance with the ditzy Jordan (Michelle Meyrink). She’s another quirky character who rarely ever sleeps, is constantly working on projects to fill her time and routinely says, “Pardon?”. She’s quite adorable.
The misfit band expands to battle Hathaway with the mysterious Lazlo Hollyfeld (Jon Gries). He gets a very quiet and unusual introduction, as Mitch watches this stranger disappear into his closet. He’s something of a peak into what Mitch’s future could possibly be. Lazlo is a former student genius who’s mind has snapped. Now he’s become a recluse, living in the basement of the school and spending every waking moment solving problems and determined to win the Frito-Lay sweepstakes.
Which is a subplot that was based on a real incident by the way. In fact, director Coolidge and producer Brian Grazer researched the lifestyle of students at Caltech, laser technology and the CIA for the film. Like the geniuses in the film they did their homework for this.
Toss in Patti D’Arbanville as a genius groupie, Louis Giambalvo as a corrupt Major and serious Ed Lauter whose daughter provides a memorable response to Chris’ flirtations. There is a lot packed in to entertain.
The film has many amusing scenes. Highlights are watching how living in a genius dorm would be. It’s sort of like a high-brow version of Animal House. There’s no crushing beer cans on heads or out of control toga parties, at Pacific Tech they’re a bit more intellectual with their their fun. Turning the dorm floor into an ice rink, growing giant cherries, lasers leading to parties, having whole cars snoring in rooms.
Chris does manage to organize a luau pool party with some nearby beautician students. The genius students are quite intimidated joining in on that fun. They decide to try it rationalizing the probability of it being one of the few times in their lives of getting a chance to have sex.
One of my favorite moments is during an all-night study session and a student cracks from the pressure. His series of screams and running out of the room gets little notice from the rest of the roomful of students who just go back to their studying.
And then the culmination of the zaniness is Hathaway’s retribution from the genius squad, which combines his adorable looking house and his hatred for popcorn. It’s ludicrous, outlandish, but boy is it creative and a lot of fun to watch happen!
Decades later that scene is still remembered. Even Mythbusters tackled the plausibility of it. They concluded it was not, but who cares – this is the movies! I think it qualifies as a ‘classic scene’.
Decades later Real Genius remains a favorite to many. It contains the quintessential music montages you would expect to see in a 80’s teen comedy. There’s some popular cool music in it, including an enjoyable score by Thomas Newman with a bit of electronic to it. Sadly, Newman’s score for the film has never been released. Famed cinematographer Vilos Zsigmond was director of photography so naturally the film has a higher pedigree than the typical cheap run-of-the-mill teen comedy.
It’s quite stunning Real Genius has never been given a special dvd/blu ray release. It’s just begging for one. The dvd that is floating around now is a lazy bare bones disc, with some horrible cover art! Come on! The film deserves more respect than that!
A lot of effort and work went into Real Genius, and it really pays off. And will continue to for those still waiting to discover it.
It’s funny when I think back on Real Genius and the time it came out. There seemed to be a run of science-based comedies that were coming along during this period – Ghostbusters, Weird Science, My Science Project, Short Circuit, Electric Dreams, the short-lived tv show Misfits of Science. Kids were busy watching Mr. Wizard in the afternoons.
Maybe this science/comedy surge was helped along with the introduction of personal computers that started garnering attention by the public. Having one of these miraculous machines at your fingertips invited all manner of possibilities.
Let’s get to something Real Genius fans have pondered since first seeing the initial trailers for it – what happened to that scene with Chris Knight sitting in a lawn chair floating in the air from balloons? Rising past a window Hathaway, with Mitch standing by his side yells, “Knight what are you doing?” to which Kilmer replies, “Floating sir.”
It’s such a visually distinctive scene, Kilmer looks so ultra cool and relaxed floating in the air and that image seems to encapsulate the character so well! That could have been the image for the poster. Why wasn’t it in the final version of the movie?
You got me. I never read of a particular reason why it was deleted. I’m sure Coolidge and Grazer had their reasons and made a creative decision and dropped it. I always imagined it was the original scene where Mitch first meets Chris. But perhaps the importance of setting up other things – like Lazlo, Chris’ upcoming job after graduation, D’Arbanville – trumped the funny image of Chris Knight floating from balloons on campus. So it was dropped and they went with the scene of Chris playing with his flying disc when he meets Mitch.
Anyway, it’s just my theory.
There’s been rumors for some time about a Real Genius television show. I don’t know if that’s ever really going to happen, but I also wouldn’t have high expectations for it. It’s kind of strange to me how a comedy from over thirty years ago that did modest business upon its initial release, but managed to gain a big fan over the years gets eyed by a television network to adapt into an ongoing series. I never would have predicted there could be a potential show based on the film.
Whether the show ever gets made or not, it’s doubtful it will eclipse the 1985 film. It continues to be just as funny, well-made and Kilmer and the cast are great in it. It’s sure to inspire further quoting for many decades to come.
“Was it a dream where you’re standing in sort of sun-God robes on top of a pyramid surrounded by thousands of naked women who are screaming and throwing little pickles at you?”
The famed trailer and the shot of Kilmer floating from balloons. This is not a good trailer, it doesn’t do the film justice.
Enjoy this clip of the introduction of Val Kilmer’s Chris Knight in Real Genius