Real Genius opened on this date, Aug. 7, in 1985. The year is important as it was Ronald Reagan’s second term as President and the HIV/AIDS crisis was now a nationwide pandemic affecting everyone.
I mention that because previous college comedies were National Lampoon’s Animal House and endless copies of young men on their own for the first time and ready to have endless sex and maybe go to class. Even the kids in Revenge of the Nerds were never shown going to class.
The kids in Real Genius go to class and if they can’t, they make sure to leave a recording device to get the lecture. In one of the funniest scene, one of the protagonist, Mitch Taylor (Gabe Jarrett), walks in on a lecture hall to only find that not only is he the only student showing up, but the professor has left a tape recorder with a note for someone to turn it on.
Mitch is a teen prodigy who has been recruited Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton), a top professor at the fictional Pacific Technical University, to work on a laser research program. Mitch will be teamed with another well known science prodigy student, Chris Knight (Val Kilmer in his second role).
What neither Mitch nor Chris initially know is that Hathaway, who is a bit of a celebrity thanks to his own weekly science show, has been hired by the U.S. Government (U.S. Air Force and CIA) to design a space laser that can target enemies all around the world. Since it’s going to be fired from space, the government can circumvent any treaties or air spaces.
But it becomes apparent at the start, Hathaway isn’t Billy Nye or Neil Degrasse Tyson but a slimeball who’s taking the big paycheck from the government to improve his house and other things, while passing along the task to his gullible students under the pretense it’s the only way they’ll be able to pass their courses and graduate.
Mitch finds out early on that college is no different than high school. He’s immediately an outsider and bullied by Kent (Robert Prescott), a senior who is constantly sucking up to Jerry and Chris’ main rival. Mitch also learns that Chris seems less interesting in studying and working in the lab and doing goofy pranks and partying.
In one scene, Chris and his friend, Ick (Mark Kamiyama) have done an experiment that creates a few feet of ice on the first floor in the hallway. Then, it will go immediately to a gas when it melts. Later, Chris arranges for some students for the nearby beauty college to stop by for a party in one of the auditoriums.
Mitch and a co-ed, Jordan Cochran (Michelle Meyrink) immediately have a spark. Jordan is a very intelligent but very hyperactive student who reportedly gets little to no sleep at all.
Mitch also becomes curious when he repeatedly sees a 30-something bearded man with long hair, Lazlo Hollyfield (John Cries) who is repeatedly coming in and out of their dorm closet. It comes to find out, Lazlo has made a domicile in the dorms boiler rooms that can only be accessed through the crawlspace behind the dorm closet.
Lazlo is loosely based on erroneous urban myths that arose following the disappearance of Michigan State University student James Dallas Egbert III during the summer of 1980 as rumors arose that Egbert either went in hiding in steam tunnels or was playing Dungeons and Dragons in the tunnels of the building and got lost.
However, what Lazlo is doing with multiple entries to a Frito-Lay sweepstakes is similar to what some CalTech students did in the mid-1970s for a McDonald’s sweepstakes.
As Mitch is planning on leaving, him and Chris speak about Lazlo, who was the top student at the school in the 1970s and the smartest student ever its history. Apparently, Lazlo had a nervous breakdown after realizing his work was being used to harm. Chris tells Mitch he used to be like him when he started but realized he would end up like Lazlo, so he encourages Mitch to relax every now and again and have some fun.
Over the term, the two bond and become good friends and partners in the lab. Mitch also gets closer with Jordan.
However, they soon learn what Hathaway has been up to after solving his “hypothetical” laser problems and everyone works together to get back at him, with help inadvertently from Kent. In one of the funniest pranks, they use Kent’s brace as an antennae to make it appear God is talking to him.
It’s a different college comedy, for sure, than what people were used to or expecting. And that’s part of the charm. There’s only so many times you can see people dancing around in togas and getting drunk before it gets tiresome. The students do pull pranks, such as getting back at Kent by breaking apart his car and moving it inside his dorm room.
One of the funniest scenes is during a study session when one of the students freaks out and screams as everyone just looks at him all calm. As he goes running out of the room, a student walks over and sits down where he was and just opens his books like nothing happened.
What also helps the movie is that the cast looks like college students instead of people in their late 20s. Kilmer was 25 at the time of filming and reportedly was told by producer Brian Grazer he looked too young. He responded by saying Grazer looked too young to be a producer, which helped get him hired, according to the stories.
Jarret was 15 and looks 15 with his baby face and smile exposing his teeth which themselves need braces. His voice sounds like it’s still changing.
Meyrink was in her early 20s. She had also appeared in Revenge of the Nerds as Gilbert’s girlfriend, Judy, who plays the accordion. She had appeared as one of the popular girls in Valley Girl, also directed by Martha Coolidge, who directed this. It’s a shame Meyrink’s acting career ended in the 1980s. She was a very good actress with range. Her role as Jordan inspired the character Gadget Hackwrench in the animated series Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers.
I even think Real Genius was loosely remade as the popular Bollywood movie Three Idiots about three students at the Imperial College of Engineering. I’ve even heard some people say that Ryan Reynold’s performance as Van Wilder is similar to Kilmer’s portrayal of Chris.
Produced on a modest budget of $8 million, it made only $13 million in America. Kilmer went on to star in bigger roles in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, before being blacklisted on reports he was difficult to work with. He has since recovered from throat cancer but has to use a voice box. Jarret unfortunately didn’t have a big success even though he did appear as a NASA tech in Apollo 13. He reportedly devotes a lot of time to be an American Sign Language interpreter.
Atherton would later point to this movie and his role in Ghostbusters as him getting typecast as creeps and slimeballs for many years. Like Thomas F. Wilson as Biff Tannen, he just played the roles so well. I’m sure Atherton, who played the doomed husband to Goldie Hawn in The Sugarland Express is a nice guy. (And I’m sure he has a dick.) He was later cast as the CIA Director in the thriller The Pelican Brief.
Cries would go on to appear in many movies before reaching new audience as Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite. You can blink and miss Dean Devlin, who later made blockbusters Stargate and Independence Day, as a student at the party with the beauty college students. And Yujo Okomoto, mostly remember as Chozen in The Karate Kid Part II and Cobra Kai, was also in that scene. If I remember correctly, both Devlin and Okomoto each have one line each through the whole movie. Otherwise, they mainly are background extras.
Part of Real Genius‘ legacy came from the climatic ending where they reroute the laser that it fires on Hathaway’s house and ignites enough popcorn to break out the windows and knock the house off its foundation. Hathaway is no fan of popcorn as we learn in an earlier scene. Many people have argued if this was possible or not. It was even tested on Mythbusters.
And that’s the moral imperative of a good movie that people still talk about it decades later.