the colonial theatre marquee

Real Genius

Directed by Martha Coolidge. US. 1985. Ages 11+. 108 minutes. Sony. blu ray.
Sat., February 16, 2013

“A flop when first released in 1985, Martha Coolidge’s bright, whimsical “Real Genius” can credit part of its substantial and richly deserved cult following to the fact that nothing has changed: Raunchy, lowbrow teen comedies are forever in vogue, and SDI is still an impossible, money-sucking political mirage. A worthy antecedent to Judd Apatow’s beloved TV shows “Freaks And Geeks” and “Undeclared,” “Real Genius” champions smart young characters without eking cruel laughs from their nerdish idiosyncrasies, which are treated like quirky side effects to their boundless creativity and imagination. Led by Val Kilmer, never better as a burned-out brainiac turned party animal, the inspired minds at Pacific Tech are exploited in the name of science, but the film suggests that their real talent is for clever, high-tech pranks.

Once the school’s top talent, Kilmer cracked under the pressure during his junior year, and now he seems determined to make up for non-wasted time by focusing his brilliance on projects like slicing liquid nitrogen into vending-machine slugs, or converting his dorm into a skating rink. He sees a lot of himself in Gabriel Jarret, an awkward 15-year-old whiz kid recruited to an elite program by William Atherton, an arrogant professor using his students to develop a laser weapons system intended to vaporize people from space. As Kilmer and Jarret sweat over the energy source, they get assistance from Michelle Meyrink, a hyperkinetic inventor who never sleeps, and Jon Gries, a reclusive ’70s super-genius who plots to win 32.6% of the prizes in a Frito-Lay sweepstakes. Veterans of the gag-a-second school of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, writers Neal Israel and Pat Proft work in setups and punchlines (sample exchange: “I want to see more of you in the lab.” “Fine. I’ll gain weight.”), but their style seems well-suited to the characters’ keen minds. Instead of giving in to the seriousness and apathy that’s plagued his career for the last decade, Kilmer brings infectious energy and remarkable physical and verbal agility to the quotable one-liners and hijinks. But under Coolidge’s sensitive direction, “Real Genius” endures just as strongly for its underlying sweetness and generosity, an answer to the bald cynicism of “Revenge of the Nerds” and its ilk. When the film’s silly prankishness finally joins forces with its peacenik idealism, the payoff is unexpectedly joyous.” (Scott Tobias, The Onion A.V. Club)