Introduction to Real Genius
In a blend of movies that, somehow, includes Wargames, Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds and Porky’s, Real Genius was quite a treat. This combines all the college shenanigans with a serious appreciation of the value of education. Paralleling Val Kilmer’s Chris Knight with Albert Einstein, we get a glimpse into what might have happened had Einstein been able to stop the bomb. However, as worried as I was at the beginning that the writers would hammer that comparison to death, Real Genius drops a few mentions of Einstein fairly early and then lets the comparison mull in the back of your mind. The sci-fi elements are a little subdued, but it does include a giant space laser, so I suppose it fits well enough for our random sci-fi movie night purposes.
While it does have the Einstein parallel, Real Genius is less heady than Wargames. Also, unlike Wargames, this spends most of its time on character work and the real conflict of the story only really emerges en force in the final act. Further, unlike those other college shenanigan movies, the humor in this lands without being overly problematic or raunchy. I had a lot of fun with this movie, so let’s get into the story.
The Story – Spoilers Abound
Mitch Taylor is a stereotypical nerd in school. Far beyond the rest of the kids (which he blames for his lack of friends), he has applied to the fictional Pacific Technical College at the age of 15 and, thanks to his revolutionary ideas regarding laser physics, the school accepts. We learn fairly early on that Mitch idolizes Chris Knight, rumored to be “the next Einstein”. After arriving at PTC, Mitch finds that he’s been assigned to room with Chris, but his idol is far from what he expected. Rather than the diligent student he imagined, Chris is scatter-brained, focused on having a good time, and wholly irreverent. It’s a bit of an Odd Couple situation and it goes bad about as fast as it possibly could.
Mitch is brilliant, sure, but Professor Hathaway, the researcher in charge of the laser project, has it in mind to use him simply to encourage Chris to finish his work. Chris’ free-wheeling philosophy and Mitch’s obsession with his work collide, leading eventually to Chris being ejected from the project and threatened with a failure to graduate. After a heart-to-heart talk, the two roommates come to an understanding, with Mitch finally realizing the danger of developing an unhealthy work-life balance.
Mitch succeeds in motivating Chris to finish both his final semester and the laser project, and after a surprisingly lengthy montage (one of three), they succeed. The laser achieves the impossible: 5MW of peak power, enough to vaporize a single human from space. Some complications aside, it seems that Chris is going to pass his final course with Hathaway and receive his degree. However, the group soon realizes the implications of their work, and in the return of the Einstein parallel, Chris decides to sabotage the project. Finally, the real conflict arises.
Mitch, Chris and several of their friends decide (in classic Cal Tech prank fashion) that they want to replace the target coordinates in the laser’s test with those of Hathaway’s house. After some close calls, they succeed, and on the day of the test, the laser strikes its new target and ignites a gigantic quantity of popcorn kernels, eventually causing the house to break apart at the seams. Justice is served, with butter and hopefully some salt.
What Real Genius Did Right
Like I said above, this movie was quite a pleasant surprise. Some of these are repeats, but I’m gonna put the Big 3 here so they’re all in one place.
Unlike Wargames I rather like the characters in Real Genius. Some of that might stem from my established kind of hatred of Matthew Broderick, but honestly, can you even think of a character trait he or Ally Sheedy have in that? What actual lesson does he learn? Are either of them endearing or funny or memorable at all?
The pacing on this is great. When it needs to, it knows when to push the montage button, but for the most part it doesn’t need it. The build-up to the final act feels natural, and by the time of its payoff, you’re realling rooting for the students.
There are some legitimately Ghostbusters level jokes in this that land really well. I’m not saying this is as well-written overall, but I laughed so hard at a few of them that I may have pulled a muscle.
What Real Genius Did Wrong
Same thing applies here, I may have mentioned some of these in the introduction, but I wanted to gather them all here.
There is less of a message to this movie than there is to Wargames and, while having a strong message may not be the whole point of this, it still hurts it slightly.
Gabriel Jarret, the actor that portrays Mitch Taylor, is just so very ugly. And needs to close his freaking mouth.
At some point, Mitch (15 years old) hooks up with a fellow student, Jordan (19 years old), and it’s more than a little squicky. We don’t know exactly how far things go, but what we do know is illegal and gross. That’s the one thing that really bothers me.
Overall, I’d argue this is one of the best college-dorm shenanigans movies out there for a number of reasons. Mostly, of course, that the protagonists are all nerds, and frankly positive nerd representation just didn’t exist in the 80s. It’s fun, has a solid (if a tiny bit underutilized) message, a good sound track, fun characters…. what more could you want? I could definitely recommend this to just about anyone. And, best of all, it doesn’t have Matthew Broderick.