In the 1980s, Martha Coolidge’s films were a welcome antidote to the dominance of John Hughes’ output. On the surface, her films appear to be quite similar, but whereas Hughes’ films ultimately play it safe and are conservative in nature (i.e. the status quo is preserved), Coolidge’s films champion the outsider in society – for example, Nicolas Cage’s punk rocker hooks up with Deborah Foreman’s Valley girl despite societal pressure in Valley Girl (1983). Real Genius (1985) appears to be just another mindless college comedy like Revenge of the Nerds (1984), but whereas that film had its outsiders ultimately become part of accepted mainstream society, the nerds in Real Genius rebel against it and are proud to be different.
Mitch Taylor (Gabe Jarret) is a brilliant high school student recruited by Professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) to become a student at Pacific Tech and join a special team working on an experimental laser. Hathaway tells Mitch and his parents in person at a science fair. The exchange between them is priceless. His parents obviously have no idea just how smart their son is and only want him to get the best education. At one point, Mitch’s mother asks Hathaway, “I saw your show the other night on radioactive isotopes and I’ve got a question for you. Is that your real hair?” He cheerfully replies, “Is Mitch by any chance adopted?” They are oblivious to the implied insult and Hathaway pulls Mitch aside and tells him, “We’re different than most people. Better.” Hathaway’s elitist attitude is established early on, setting him up as an arrogant snob that must be taught a lesson in humility by our heroes.
Hathaway rooms Mitch with Chris Knight (Val Kilmer), the top brain on campus – at least he used to be until Mitch showed up. We first meet Chris as he’s being taken on a guided tour of a top science laboratory. He has a t-shirt on that reads, “I love toxic waste,” and a set of alien antennae on his head that demonstrate he is the antithesis of Hathaway. He may be super smart but he’s not a stuffed shirt. At one point, his tour guide asks him, “You’re Chris Knight, aren’t you?” Without missing a beat, he replies, “I hope so, I’m wearing his underwear.” Val Kilmer’s deadpan delivery is right on the money and he demonstrates an uncanny knack for comic timing. The film could have so easily set up a rivalry between Chris and Mitch but instead they become friends and team up against a common foe: Kent (Robert Prescott), an arrogant senior student who is also working on the laser.
Chris is super smart, but something of a loose cannon, always cracking jokes and never taking anything too seriously, much to Mitch’s consternation because he doesn’t know how to loosen up and have fun. Mitch also has trouble adjusting to campus life and this isn’t helped by Kent who enjoys tormenting Mitch when the senior student isn’t busy sucking up to Hathaway. Coolidge replaces the class warfare in Valley Girl with in-fighting amongst academics in Real Genius. The setting may be different, but the tactics are no less mean-spirited as Kent delights in publicly humiliating Mitch. Meanwhile, Hathaway puts pressure on Chris to produce a working laser before the school year ends. Failure to do so will result in Hathaway making sure that Chris doesn’t graduate or work in his field of expertise. Unbeknownst to the ace student, his professor is getting pressured by a flunky and his superior from the CIA who want to use the laser for their own covert actions (assassinations from outer space?).
Every so often, Mitch catches a glimpse of a mysterious long-haired man who goes into his closet at random times during the day. His name is Lazlo (Jon Gries) and he lives deep in the bowels of the school. He used to be the smartest student on campus back in the 1970s but cracked under the pressure and now spends all of his time generating entries for the Frito Lay sweepstakes (enter as often as you like) so as to get as many of the prizes as possible. Jon Gries plays Lazlo as a shy genius, smarter than Chris and Mitch combined. He’s a gentle soul and a far cry from the arrogant blowhard he would go on to play in Napoleon Dynamite (2004).
Over the course of the film, Mitch finds himself attracted to Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), a hyperactive student who never seems to sleep. She sports an adorable Louise Brooks-style bob haircut and a nervous energy that is oddly attractive. I had a huge crush on her when I first saw this film back in the day, quite possibly one of my earliest cinematic crushes. She was the ultimate nerd sex symbol in the ‘80s with her undeniable beauty and brains. Sadly, after a few films she grew disenchanted with the movie making business and retired to Canada to become a Zen Buddhist.
Remember when Val Kilmer was funny? Between this film and Top Secret! (1984), he displayed some impressive comedic chops. Kilmer excels at delivering smartass quips and jokes but is also capable of delivering an inspirational speech that convinces Mitch to stick it out at school and get revenge on Kent. There are two scenes where he dispenses with the jokes and has a relatively serious conversation with Mitch about life. They are refreshingly heartfelt and elevate Real Genius above the usual ‘80s teen comedy.
Gabe Jarret is perfectly cast as the helplessly square Mitch with his dorky haircut and his J.C. Penney’s wardrobe. We aren’t meant to laugh at him and Coolidge shows that he’s a good kid thrust into a new and strange environment. He’s smart, but lacks the emotional maturity, which he will acquire over the course of the film. Jarret does a nice job of conveying his character’s arc. He doesn’t totally transform into Chris but instead absorbs some of his traits while remaining true to himself.
In the ‘80s, William Atherton seemed to be the go-to guy for playing douchebag authority figures, with memorable turns as the unscrupulous journalist in Die Hard (1988), the “dickless” EPA guy in Ghostbusters (1984), and, of course, his turn in Real Genius. Atherton’s job, and man, does he do it oh so well, is to provide a source of conflict for our protagonists. He portrays Hathaway as the ultimate arrogant prick and we can’t wait to see him get his well-deserved comeuppance at the hands of Chris and Mitch.
Real Genius does plug in the usual tropes of ‘80s teen comedies with the now dated soundtrack of New Wave songs, most of them forgotten except for “Everybody Wants to the Rule the World” by Tears for Fears, which plays over the blissfully carefree ending of the film. There are the wacky comedic set pieces involving pranks. There’s also the T&A factor when Chris takes Mitch to an indoor pool party populated by sexy beauticians. Not to mention, the dorm that Chris and his classmates live in which vaguely resembles the chaotic frat house in Animal House (1978), only inhabited by really smart people.
However, it is how the film presents these generic elements that sets it apart from the typical ‘80s teen comedy. For example, the pranks are quite inventive, like when Chris and Mitch manage to place Kent’s car in his dorm room. There are several and they all lead up to the mack daddy of them all, which occurs at the climax of the film. While there is the requisite T&A factor in Real Genius, the PG rating assures that we don’t see much, just some girls in bikinis. Instead, we get the understated romance that develops between Mitch and Jordan, which is rather sweet in its own unassuming way. The dorm is certainly not the debauched chaos of Delta House, but it clearly is a place of fun, led by Chris and his various antics.
Producer Brian Grazer loved the humor and the sensibility that Martha Coolidge brought to Valley Girl and asked her to direct Real Genius. She thought that the screenplay was funny, but it had “a lot of penis and scatological jokes” that reminded her of other teen comedies she had turned down in the past. However, Grazer brought in Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel to give the script a polish and had Coolidge re-read it. She liked it and Grazer’s boundless enthusiasm convinced her to commit to the project. Still not completely satisfied with the script, Grazer brought in comedy writer P.J. Torokvei to help Coolidge create the story, come up with the ending and fully develop the characters. For example, it was Torokvei who came up with the character of Jordan and was responsible for many of Chris Knight’s memorably smartass remarks.
Coolidge insisted on researching laser technology and policies of the CIA. The producers even brought in top-level consultants from the military and weapons development experts. To make Real Genius distinctive from other teen science fiction films at the time, the director went to great lengths to make sure the science was authentic and the science fiction aspect was plausible. At the time, scientists were actually working on the powerful laser Chris and his fellow students were developing for Hathaway, but the filmmakers could only work with a smaller wattage for reasons of safety and cost. The production used real lasers with very little visual effects enhancement, of which was used only sparingly at the film’s climax.
In addition, she interviewed dozens of Cal Tech students and based most of the stories in the film and the visual depiction of their school on Cal Tech, in particular Dabney Hall. Coolidge also met with all kinds of scientists and students, including the legendary Cal Tech mathematician grad that was rumored to have lived in the steam tunnels. To say that the director was a stickler for authenticity was an understatement. The graffiti in the dorm was copied from the actual dorm graffiti by scenic painters and then embellished further by Cal Tech students brought in by the production.
Not surprisingly, Coolidge and producers saw many young actors for the role of Chris Knight. It became obvious that Val Kilmer was the best actor to embody the role, but John Cusack was also considered at one point. However, once principal photography began, Coolidge found Kilmer not so easy to work with because he was “intellectually challenging and erratic.” He avoided working by asking a lot of questions and was sometimes late to the set and acted moody. That being said, over the 75-day shoot, they gained a lot of trust and worked well together.
The filmmakers also spent a lot of time trying to cast an actor for the role of Mitch Taylor. At one point, they seriously considered hiring a true young genius that had graduated college in his early teens. They discovered Gabe Jarret late in pre-production and he had the “right combination of seriousness, gawkiness, intelligence and emotion that we needed,” Coolidge remembers.
For the house that explodes with popcorn at the film’s exciting climax, the special F/X people designed all kinds of hydraulic systems to move the popcorn. The next challenge was generating all the stuff. They couldn’t buy all the popcorn needed for the scene in the short amount of time they had so the film crew popped 40 tons themselves on the lot over six weeks. All the popcorn was stored in 38 40-foot tractor-trailer trucks.
Real Genius argues that nerds can have fun too, but there needs to be a balance. You can love solving problems but it can’t be all science and no philosophy as Chris tells Mitch. People like Kent and Hathaway have no sense of humor and are self-obsessed egotists. They are ambitious to a fault, not caring who they step on the way, while Chris and Mitch are aware of the consequences of their actions. There is sweetness to this film that is endearing and rather strange considering that Neal Israel and Pat Proft wrote the screenplay (authors of such paeans to sweetness, like Police Academy and Bachelor Party), but Coolidge is firmly in charge and wisely doesn’t let Real Genius get too sappy. She also doesn’t let the funny stuff devolve into mindless frat humor, instead maintaining a proper mix that doesn’t insult our intelligence. The end result is a film that the characters in the film might enjoy, if they weren’t already in it. Achieving just the right alchemy may explain why the film continues to enjoy a modest cult following and is one of the few teen comedies from the ‘80s that stands the test of time.