These days, Val Kilmer is the kind of actor you cast when you need someone to play a character who used to be a handsome, alpha male. Before that, he was an A-list leading man for a brief moment there in the 90s. But before all that, it seems like he was the next big thing in big, broad comedies. I’ve never seen it, but Top Secret! seems like a Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker laugh fest in the vein of Airplane. And around the same time, he also starred in Real Genius.
At a high school science fair, we meet Mitch (Gabriel Jarret), I boy genius who’s laser experiment sets him apart from his mouth breathing school mates and parents. TV personality and prestigious college recruiter, Professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton), offers Mitch a scholarship and the 15 year old is off to college. Here, he meets the coolest and most subversive nerd ever, Val Kilmer’s Chris Knight. We know he’s the coolest and most subversive nerd ever, because he’s wearing colourful sneakers, googly alien antennae and a t-shirt that says “I Heart Toxic Waste”.
Chris Knight was Professor Hathaway’s protégé and brightest star, but he has become disillusioned and lazy. Which is terrible timing, since Hathaway is relying on his army of collegiate nerds to develop a laser he has promised to the CIA that can kill any specific person on earth, from the comfort of outer space. So amongst the crazy fun, Real Genius has a serious message about the ethics of warfare and the transparency of government agencies. That, or it’s just a lazy, by the numbers comedy that does its best to do exactly what you expect every step of the way.
I know what you’re wondering, is there a montage set to a shitty 80s song where the characters can fast forward through some bonding, story development and the odd plot breakthrough? You better believe it. In true 80s tradition, this sequence sees the heroes accomplish more in three minutes than the entirety of the 45 minutes that precede it.
Real Genius is almost the flip side of Revenge of the Nerds. Released just one year earlier, Nerds is the outsiders looking in. The writers want us to laugh at Lewis and Gilbert just as much as they want us to laugh with them. They’re the pocket protector, taped up glasses, high pantsed nerds of caricature. Real Genius however feels like more of an insider’s look. This was made for nerds, by nerds, who lived this life as college science geniuses and are determined to let us know just how cool and wacky they were.
Young Val Kilmer is pretty impressive and has enough natural charisma to pull off the role as the coolest nerd ever. But the real star of Real Genius is Atherton as the bad guy. But you could say that about a few movies around this time. He was amazing as Richard Thornberg, the sceevy TV reporter in Die Hard. And then there’s his greatest role, Walter Peck (AKA Dickless) in Ghostbusters. He really was the go to for this kind of character back then.
Real Genius is an OK movie, but it could have been a great one if it just committed a little more to what it wanted to be. Is it kid’s movie? Well, maybe have a little less about the clandestine workings of the CIA. Is it a raunchy college movie? Then turn up the raunch? Is it a screwball comedy? Then go bigger with the gags and silliness. In the end, it tries to be too much to too many people and becomes a bit of a bland collection of not very much. It’s perfectly watchable, but also perfectly forgettable.