It took a cast of actors that actually mirrored authentic teenagers and college students (with the exception of Val Kilmer) with braces, acne and all. That awkward period in life has a universal understanding, and is why this film is still relevant today. “Real Genius” also manages to mix in sharp humor and bizarre characters to create an unusual and appealing concoction that, at its core, has a huge heart.
Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret) is a 15-year-old genius that has been honored with early admission into a college that deals specifically with physics. He shares a room with fellow genius Chris Knight (Kilmer), who tries to teach him that there is more to life than science while they work as a team to build the ultimate laser.
This was filmed early in Kilmer’s career, and his raw charisma is tapped into to create a mastermind that refuses to take life seriously – one liners roll off his tongue as he approaches the bureaucracy and falseness of the adults that surround him. The movie is constructed around him, and his talent is evident in an early leading role. This element is what has been missing from some of his recent work. (An interesting side note: He has a trademark in many of his films involving his knuckles and a quarter.)
The embodiment of the establishment and bureaucracy is brought to life by William Atherton as Professor Jerry Hathaway. Atherton has been a major staple of portraying this type of character in many great pictures of the ‘80s, including “Ghostbusters” and “Die Hard.” In an exploitative manner, his character is using the students to build a laser that will be used to kill people, and the money he makes will help to build a new house. He uses their grades and social life as ransom so that he can have this dream abode.
By the way, you may need to remember one thing: Hathaway hates popcorn.
One student seemingly manages to follow all of Hathaway’s orders, no matter how much of a loss of dignity it causes him. On top of that, he reports on Knight and Taylor in their pursuits of having fun. Therefore, he is one of the movie’s main villains, and Robert Prescott portrays brownnoser Kent perfectly. He manages to balance the comical aspects into the character, allowing for a few inspired moments of comedy that include a lengthy conversation with God. Prescott effectively portrayed Tom Hanks’ nemesis in “Bachelor Party,” also.
Jarret is pitch-perfect as the nerdy Taylor, whose relationship with the hyperactive Jordan Cochran (Michelle Meyrink) is adorable.
But the real scene stealer here is Jon Gries as Lazlo Hollyfeld, who lives in Taylor and Knight’s closet. This character is crackling with originality, as his main purpose seems to be entering a Frito-Lay contest and winning 32 percent of the prizes. We discover that he is actually a burnt-out genius hiding out from the world and, in the end; things amazingly work out for him. Creating this character speaks volumes of the writers’ originality and fearlessness as the result is something previously unseen by audiences.
Sprinkle in a great soundtrack featuring Bryan Adams and Tears for Fears, and you have one of the best college movies of the ‘80s, one that’s almost on par with “Revenge of the Nerds.”
The sharp, edgy writing comes from Neal Israel, who was a major part of the comedy scene in the ‘80s, with credits that include “Americathon,” “Police Academy” and “Bachelor Party.” His screenplay seems to be completely understood by the director Martha Coolidge (“Valley Girl”).
Kilmer’s presence at the time seemed to combine perfectly with the writing and direction to create a movie that will leave you wanting popcorn, and lots of it.