by Chris Wood
“Always, uh, never forget to check your references.”
Film Monthly Home
Short Takes (Archived)
Small Screen Monthly
Behind the Scenes
New on DVD
Books on Film
What's Hot at the Movies This Week
“…Was it a dream where you see yourself standing in sort of sun-god robes, on top of a pyramid, with a thousand naked women screaming and throwing little pickles at you?” Chris Knight (Val Kilmer, Tombstone), senior at Pacific Tech., all around goof-off, and genius, quizzically responds to his new roommate — freshman Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret, The American President).
Taylor has no real verbal reply for his delightfully delusional roommate, and, with that, Knight continues, “Why am I the only person who has that dream?”
Taylor, a fifteen year-old prodigy in the field of laser technology, is coming to terms with his extraordinary intelligence and the pressures of being smart through the assistance — whether he likes it or not — of Knight, the equivalent of a geeky bully named Kent Torokvei (Robert Prescott, Bachelor Party) and his self-proclaimed mentor, Professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton, Day of the Locust, Die Hard I & II).
“Compared to you, most people have the IQ of a carrot,” Hathaway exclaims to Taylor at a science fair just before telling him that he has been accepted to the Pacific Technical Institute. (Vegetables think they’re so smart!)
The beginning of Real Genius does not initially belie that it’s a comedy, opening with a group of military experts and advisors in the area of weaponry examining film on an idea that a high-powered laser, with the aid of some mirrors, can vaporize a human target on Earth from outer space. Can you say Star Wars technology? Being that the movie was made in 1985, big military spending was a hot topic, and, point-in-fact, today a weapon similar to the one in the movie exists (I saw a special on the Discovery Channel).
But the somewhat serious beginning takes a one-eighty when we are introduced to Chris Knight, who is on a job interview at a laser related company. Knight, wearing an “I Love Toxic Waste” T-shirt, checkered Vans (as seen on Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High), and an Einsteinish hair-do, wastes no time in asking the all-important question when on a job interview: “Do you have a jacuzzi?”
After a few more remarks like that, the man doing the interviewing asks, “You are Chris Knight… aren’t you?”
Knight then responds, “I hope so, I’m wearing his underwear!” (Mental note: Always incorporate underwear humor in movie script.)
Now it’s apparent that this is not your father’s comedy with Bob Hope or Dick Van Dyke — not that there’s anything wrong with that. Real Genius is a comedy that’s extremely hilarious and retroactively refreshing, having a late 70’s and early 80’s humor that is not seen in too many comedies today. Currently, movies like Slackers go for the extreme gross -out humor, which is dull and no fun after the movie. Moviegoers should be so inclined to repeat funny lines and quotes from a comedy, and not fart sounds or other distasteful bowel movements — although I’m told that farts equal funny. (Einstein’s lost equation: fart + audience = funny)
The humor in this movie is similar to that of some other great comedies like Fletch, with Chevy Chase, or M*A*S*H, with Eliot Gould and Donald Southerland. The situations in which the humor is being used can very easily be related and repeated in every day life. There is a sense of timing, flow, and an actual plot where the actors create the humor, and not vice-versa.
Take for example: midway (not the battle) through the movie, Taylor comes up to Knight after Knight finds out he’s going to be flunked out of school, and asks, “Whatchya doing?”
Knight, Kilmer’s character, pauses, never looking directly at Taylor, and responds, “Self realization: I was thinking of the immortal words of Socrates who said, ‘I drank what?’”
Getting back to the movie, it has appeared to the Hush-Puppy-wearing-Taylor that his roommate, who “categorizes all my filth in alphabetical order,” is not the stereotypical genius who likes to talk protons over a bowl of Wheaties. Knight likes to party and sets up several pranks that would have weatherman Al Roker calling for a one hundred per cent chance of hilarity, but is also aware of Taylor being on the fast track to burning out. He tries to help Mitch relax, but Mitch’s idea of relaxing has nothing to do with being snubbed by beauticians (that’s just wrong) and finds romance in an egghead named Jordan Cochran (Michelle Meyrink, Revenge of the Nerds).
Still, all is not well in the land of the smart, as dynamic duo Taylor and Knight work at a project for Professor Hathaway, which seems innocent enough at first, but then is discovered to be a toy for the “Gods of the Military.” However, Hathaway and the military are not the only enemies in this movie… enter Kent.
A whole write-up should be done on this character that Prescott does perfectly in Real Genius, as well he does in Bachelor Party with Tom Hanks. Kent is a sneaky, no-good jerk, whose lips are placed firmly at the buttocks of one Professor Hathaway — though not literally.
“You’re all just a bunch of degenerates,” Kent proclaims through his braces and Coke bottle glasses to Knight, Taylor, and a handful of other “smarty pants” having fun.
Of course, Knight comes back with, “We are? What about that time I caught you naked with that bowl of Jello?”
To this Kent replies, “I was hot and hungry!” (Can’t argue with that logic.)
Kent is always out to spoil fun, continuously monitoring and reporting on Knight and Taylor’s hijinks to Professor Hathaway, who really dislikes Kent himself. “Hello Jerry,” Kent addresses his idol.
“I thought I told you, Kent, you don’t get to use my first name,” Professor Hathaway replies. (Ouch!)
Another genius, of the previous generation, named Lazlo Hollyfeld (Jon Greis, The Pretender: Island of the Haunted) has been strangely walking into Chris and Mitch’s room during the course of the semester, then into their closet, finally disappearing without a trace.
Mitch brings this to Knight’s attention: “Did you know there’s a guy living in our closet?”
“You’ve seen him too?” Knight replies.
Not to worry, Lazlo is not a stalker; just a guy living in a steam tunnel under the dorm, entering numerous times into the Frito Lay sweepstakes, and wearing pajamas (Whew, I thought it was going to be something weird!). As it turns out, Lazlo was the BMOC in the 70’s, “smarter than you and me put together,” Knight tells Mitch, but he loved his work too much and cracked severely under the pressure. He acts as the wise (and sometimes wise-cracking) older genius, with high-tech capabilities.
Add Lazlo to the team, and now there are four (Chris, Mitch, Lazlo, and Jordan) geniuses at work. Not very similar to Marvel comics, The Fantastic Four (a cartoon), these intellectuals discover; then vow to stop, Professor Hathaway and his military connections from putting to work Mitch and Chris’s success in making a five megawatt laser.
“That’s hotter than the sun!” Kent exclaims, when Knight explains the laser’s capabilities.
Most impressive is Val’s comedic performance, and it’s too bad he hasn’t done lots more like this little gem — that’s excluding Top Secret. Real Genius came out before Val was known as “Iceman” from Top Gun, which led to more star power, but The Island of Dr. Moreau and Red Planet melted his Hollywood persona. [That and his reported onset behavior — Eds.] Hopefully, he’s staging a comeback in a big way.
William Atherton as Dr. Hathaway is great. He is as annoying as he was in Die Hard, where he played nosey reporter Richard Thornburg. Annoying is a trait that is important in his character, because one has to hate Hathaway, but also laugh at him.
“What are you looking at?” Atherton, as Hathaway, questions a crew of carpenters working on his house. “You’re laborers. You’re supposed to be laboring. That’s what you get for not having an education!”
Just so you can say you learned something: In 1974, Atherton starred with Goldie Hawn in The Sugarland Express, which was one of Steven Spielberg’s first movies.
It is genius, Real Genius, how the bookworms exact revenge on their Professor in the end. And, for anyone who has seen the movie, when “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” by Tears For Fears starts to play, and Hathaway pulls up to his house with its new alterations, an urge for an endless supply of butter and salt becomes as necessary as the need to breath. Pop Secret’s got nothing on this one!
“Would you be prepared if gravity reversed itself? The only thing I can’t figure out is how to keep the change in my pockets? I’ve got it. Nudity!” — Knight to Taylor.
“All my filth is arranged in alphabetical order. This, for example, is under ‘H’ for toy!” — Knight to Taylor.
“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.” — Knight to group in front of Kent.
“Your mother puts license plates on your underwear? How do you sit?” — Knight to Taylor.
“Moles and trolls, moles and trolls, work, work, work, work, work. We never see the light of day. We plan this thing for weeks and all they want to do is study. I’m disgusted. I’m sorry but it’s not like me, I’m depressed. There was what, no one at the mutant hamster races and we had one entry into the Madame Curie look-alike contest and he was disqualified later. Why do I bother?” — Knight to Taylor.
And my most used quote is…
“Do you still run?” — Hathaway. “Only when chased!” — Knight
Chris Wood is not a syndicated film critic, but he plays one on TV.
Got a problem? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org