The 1980s were the decade of the teenage screwball movie, with too many titles to count dedicated to the various travails of growing up, surviving high school, navigating teenage social pressures, scoring with the opposite sex, dealing with adults, and finding the way to one’s own adulthood. The vast majority of these movies are silly T&A romps and/or thinly written strings of bathroom jokes, often made possible by the twin markets of cable TV and home video, where you could churn and burn really bad movies like never before. More than a few of these teen movies of that age veer toward softcore porn. Others, however, became touchstones for everything it meant to be a kid in the Reagan era, and one of those is Real Genius, a largely forgotten gem of a movie starring a pre-Top Gun Val Kilmer as well as William Atherton, who plays a conniving scumbag in between his roles as a conniving scumbag in Ghostbusters and a conniving scumbag in Die Hard. Say what you want about character actors: at least they can find steady work.
The story involves a group of teenage super-geniuses all studying together at Pacific Tech, a fictionalized version of Caltech—sort of a Hogwarts for the future Elon Musks of the world. The newest among them is Mitch Taylor, who is young even by these wunderkind standards, and has been recruited to Pacific Tech by physics professor Jerry Hathaway. Hathaway has been contracted by the CIA to develop an orbital laser platform capable of incinerating individual targets from space, but he has blown all of the project’s money on remodeling his house, so he uses his own students as naive and unpaid subcontractors to design the laser so he might steal it and deliver it to the government. He gives Mitch to Chris Knight, a senior legendary both for his brilliance and for being a prank-happy slacker. Hathaway hates Knights’ guts but must tolerate him to complete the laser. Mitch, of course, is a kind of contingency plan to spur Knight along and perhaps to leapfrog him. Along the way, Mitch befriends Jordan, a female student whose brain seems to work at a slightly faster harmonic frequency than everyone else; “Ick” Ikagami who is the group’s straight man; and Lazlo Hollyfield, a kind of Chris Knight of yesteryear who burned out, disappeared into the tunnels beneath the school and became something of an urban legend.
The story is mainly about Mitch’s attempts to fit into a school he is not quite ready for, his torment at the hands of Kent (a sadistic dweeb of a graduate assistant working for Hathaway) and his tutelage under Knight. It is about how Knight, Mitch, Jordan, Ick, Lazlo and their other fellow students race against time to develop Hathaway’s laser. It is about how Hathaway steals said laser, and about how the kids exact their vengeance upon Hathaway.
For being a story about extremely smart people, the movie itself is not particularly deep or sophisticated. It is a campus comedy that features more than a little screwball antics and bizarro gags that could only have succeeded in a setting populated by young Tony Starks who are somewhere between blowing up their parents’ garages and earning their first billion dollars by inventing world-changing technology. And that is fine; not everything has to be Citizen Kane.
But what makes Real Genius so wonderful isn’t what the story says, but how it says it. The movie might not be super-smart, but it is clever…clever enough, certainly for those young geeks in the audience who marveled at characters smart enough to insert coin-sized slivers of liquid nitrogen into a soda machine for free soda; crasy enough to turn their dorm hall into an ice skating rink; cunning enough build an automatic writing machine to dominate one of those “enter as many times as you like, no purchase necessary” sweepstakes, and ballsy enough to cook up the world’s biggest tin of popcorn. And all this, while uber-slacker Knight smartasses his way to any and every authority figure around and somehow gets away with it because he is simply smart enough to do so and witty enough to gain the grudging respect of the people he just burned. Did I want to be Chris Knight? You bet I did. Dude blew off class so much he gets the professors to start doing it, too.
Seeing this movie as a sophomore or junior in high school, Real Genius offered a vision of college that was real enough to speak to a life after high school, yet fantastic enough to suggest that whatever college was going to be like, it wasn’t going to be like this. It hit that “the kids are smarter than the adults” nerve that will never stop appealing to teenagers, and it did it in a way that worked especially well for me because these kids weren’t just smarter than the adults around them, they were smarter than everybody.
But this movie is about innocence as well, and that is why I love it so. Our heroes are all innocent, and the plot hinges upon how Kent, Hathaway and government take advantage of that. Our heroes are all disillusioned at some point in the story, either burdened by the isolation that comes with being super-smart (or just plain weird) or having realized that they have been played like fiddles. And yet, when the kids get their revenge, it isn’t by stooping to Hathaway’s or Kent’s level—the kids never become the monsters they are fighting. No, the teen geniuses get their payback on their terms, which is both playful and bare-knuckled. And in so doing, they preserve their own sense of innocence in a world that seems hellbent on stripping it from them. And if that ain’t a moment of truth, I don’t know what is.