Real Genius, a classic movie review

There are a handful of touchstone movies from the mid-80s that helped define my quirky sense of humour and my stylistic storytelling sensibilities. These include Clue, The Highlander, Ghostbusters, The Princess Bride, Ladyhawke, Labrynth, The Dark Crystal, Blade Runner, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Brazil, Better Off Dead, the original Star Wars trilogy, The Breakfast Club, and a handful of other lesser lights, including a quirky little comedy featuring a youthful Val Kilmer, an even younger Gabe Jarret, and the prototypical geek queen, Michelle Meyrink, called Real Genius.

Lots of people saw it, but few harken back to it in any meaningful way, because, though it hasn’t aged that badly, it has aged, and would need a total overhaul if it were being remade for today’s audiences. The prospect of a remake is so remote, it’s not even worth discussing, though, so I shant speculate.

What I WILL do is write a friendly review to explain why I think this movie deserves serious reappraisal, both as an 80s artifact, and as a more sweeping and comprehensive breakdown of social values that were prevalent in the 80s, and as well, it seems, today.

First off, let’s make this clear: Real Genius is not the most important film of the 80s. It just happens to occupy that space in my pantheon, having been one of the most defining coming-of-age films in the 80s for me. There are other 80s films that also did this. The Navigator, Goonies, Explorers, The Neverending Story, The Outsiders, and of course, Stand By Me, perhaps the finest coming-of-age story ever produced. I’ve probably forgotten a few. Sorry.

What Real Genius DOES do, and extremely well, is skewers both our attitude towards education and the need for intelligent people, regardless of age, gender or race. There are a cast of characters that fit most of the architypes asserted in other ‘geek’ films like the Revenge of the Nerds franchise, but where RotN is happy to make clowns of everyone, including women, gays, blacks and athletes, as well as the titular nerds themselves, Real Genius is a celebration of intelligence over power and greed. So on that point alone, it is far superior to the Revenge movies. It doesn’t do this in a poe-faced, dour fashion; Real Genius IS a comedy, and does NOT take itself too seriously. But it makes a valid point that other similar films kind of skimped on.

Another favourite from that time period, War Games, also addressed a lot of the same concerns, as a smart kid demonstrates the flwed security and flawed military thinking that was prevalent in a lot of films of the day, whether drama, action or comedy. But where War Games went wrong was that it presented the intelligent, precocious kid as a metaphor for intelligence as a whole. It cautions us about arrogance, of the hubris of assuming that intellectual brilliance often is only capable of yielding Frankenstein’s Monster scenarios. This belies the entire march of human progress, but never mind that, we have a computer that can be lulled into firing nuclear missiles and causing an apocalypse.

Real Genius addresses this theme as well, but not as a thriller; it spells out the dire circumstances using seemingly regular adults who have become corrputed by the military industrial complex that was almost fetishistically worshipped in the 80s. Films like Stripes, Best Defense and Spies Like Us both skewered and yet somehow paradoxically made international politics, the military, and the Cold War in general, seem fun, almost sexy. Heck, scratch that… those films made Cold War seem extremely sexy, perhaps unintentionally so, but it’s there, nevertheless.

But what Real Genius did differently is, it presented the bright, anarchic kids as the hope for the future that they invariably are. This is a message that could do with repeating here in 2017, I’m convinced.

I don’t think we need to worry about spoilers here, but I’m not going to discuss the plot, as I do think it is a fairly middle-of-the-road plotline bouyed up by some pretty great dialogue and a number of very strong, sensitive, nuanced performances, especially from the leads. The chemistry between Val, Gabe, and Michelle in particular make the film sing, and the tour de force performance of William Atherton as Professor Hathaway, the entirely self-involved celebrity scientist that has rarely been portrayed the same before or since, makes the film far stronger than a breakdown of it’s somewhat formulaic plot would indicate.

What I will do here is spell out, briefly, how important this film was to a generation of smart kids that had mostly been coaxed into believing that the only good use for a big brain was making military weapons and getting rich doing so. Real Genius not only taught us that geeks were sexy, cool, and, dare I say, charming, but it also showed us that youth and optimism are not impediments to making the right decisions about what is good for the world. Real Genius isn’t precisely a morality play, but it does delve deeply into the ramifications of just following orders and not questioning authority. And it does so with wit and grace, something most of those other 80s moralizing stories failed to do.

So, what’s the point? It’s not the best-remembered comedy of its day. It didn’t win awards. It wasn’t made by the late John Hughes. It’s not part of a successful franchise. It’s extremely quotable, but it’s not remembered as such. In essence, it’s remembered by a small cadre of disassociated Gen Xers who usually prefer to recall the cultural significance of 90s films like Clerks, Empire Records, Singles, and Dumb & Dumber. So where does that leave Real Genius? A signpost? An outlier? Or did it succeed in its mission to make smart people seem more relevant and human than the veritable 80s monoculture tried to make us think?

I don’t know the answer, either. I can tell you that it was important to me personally. It informed my thinking about not allowing myself to be exploited or naive about climbing the corporate ladder. It cautioned me about trying to be the smartest kid by answering all of the big questions of the day. It taught me the importance of thinking for myself. And, as I’m learning, I’m not the only one who got something from this film; my ever-loving wife revealed that she too was significantly educated by this film, visa not allowing the pressures of academia engulf her, a lesson we have in common. I wonder how many other children of the 70s and 80s took that lesson away with them, as well.

The ultimate lesson I take from this very clever, very enjoyable film, is a simple one, but a profound one: the application of intelligence without an equal or greater amount of wisdom is never the answer. If you want to do great things, sometimes you have to stop and ask the question ‘Why’, before you march headlong towards answering the more pedestrian question, ‘How’.

Thank you for reading. Now, go find yourself a copy of the film and watch it.

It’s a moral imperative.



Don't be shy. Tell me what you really think, now.


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