Real Genius (1985)

I was lucky enough to have some teachers that cared back in high school. One of them was the only teacher who gave me a D in my entire history and believe it or not, I should thank him for it.

By ninth grade, I didn’t care at all about school. I went through the motions, I knew that I wanted to be an artist or something creative, and I couldn’t wait to escape my small town. Every decision felt like something I was committed to and just did to fit in or fulfill some set role: marching band being a major one of these decisions. One of my few joys was the computer club, where Mr. Brown would allow students to learn how to program at night, watch movies that he selected or just hang out. It’s where I first heard a dubbed tape of Metallica’s song “Orion,” which put me on a path to the music I enjoyed. And it’s where I watched two movies that I can remember — My Science Project and this film.

Mitch Taylor is 15 and already in college. He’s been fast-tracked to Pacific Technical University where the best and brightest minds develop weapons — unbeknownst to them — for slimy Professor Jerry Hathaway (all-time all-star asshole William Atherton).

Chris Knight (Val Kilmer, never better) was once like Mitch but has now become burned out on academics and would rather party. Hathaway assigns Mitch to lead his laser research team because he has fresh ideas, but he’s also hoping that he’ll kick Chris in the butt and remind him how he used to be.

The bad kids of the college — such as it is, they’re all nerds in this movie — try to beat on MItch, but Chris rallies to his aid and explains why he is like he is. There was once a student named Lazlo who was devoted to his experiments until he learned they were all being used for weapons research. He went insane and now he lives inside the walls of the college. Chris didn’t want the same thing to happen to him, so he now enjoys life more than college.

Chris and Mitch get on the same page and they form a team to get things done. Lazlo even shows up to help. Mitch even gets a girlfriend, Jordan (Michelle Meyrink, who soon left acting to be a Zen Buddhist), who became pretty much every girl I looked for from that moment on. Then I learned the truth: there aren’t many genius geek girls that look and act like Michelle Meyrink.

Hijinks ensue — as they should — with the team taking down Hathaway, including taking his assistant Kent’s car apart and rebuilding it inside his dorm room, then placing a radio receiver inside his teeth so he thinks he can hear the voice of God, which ends up being Chris. Also: the prank at the end with the laser exploding Jiffy Pop inside Hathaway’s house is truly the prank of all movie pranks.

That’s what I love about this movie — the heroes may be put upon, but never emerge as mean spirited or hurtful in their revenge. They’ve been treated badly but there’s no reason to perpetuate the pain. They just want to have fun.

This movie is packed with talent. There’s Yuji Okumoto, a few years removed from his amazing heel work in The Karate Kid Part 2. Lazlo, the man in the walls who ends up entering tons of contests and becomes rich, is another cameo star turn by the always surprising Jonathan Gries. Warhol girl Patti D’Arbanville shows up (interestingly enough, she was the inspiration for two Cat Stevens songs, “Lady D’Arbanville” and “Wild World”). Severn Darden – Kolp from the last two Planet of the Apes films — plays a professor. Dean Devlin — who would go on to write Universal SoldierStargate and Independence Day) — acts in this. And the Valley Girl herself, Deborah Foreman, shows up.

By the way — Lazlo’s multiple Frito-Lay contest entries is more than just a funny scene in this movie. It’s based on reality. In 1974, Caltech students Steve Klein, Dave Novikoff and Barry Megdal did the same thing to win a McDonald’s contest. They sent in around 20% of the total entries and walked away with a station wagon, $3,000 in cash and $1,500 in food gift certificates.

I also love that Lazlo has left this quote inside his tunnels: “Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain,” a translation of a quote from the German poet Friedrich Schiller. Seriously, what a strange and well-rounded character, but that’s the genius of this movie (and Jon Gries).

Between Valley GirlNational Lampoon’s Joy of Sex and this movie, Martha Coolidge sure had a great teen movie run in the 80’s. She went on to make the critically acclaimed Rambling Rose and still works today in TV.

Back to that D. Mr. Brown — that same computer club teacher — was the one who gave it to me. I was taking a programming class and didn’t study and thought because he was so friendly to us he’d cut me a break. He didn’t.

At first I felt betrayed and angry. But as I realized that I had coasted and not lived up to my full potential — and spent 6 weeks grounded with no computer and had to apply myself — I realized that he was right.

From then on, I changed out my classes so that I would take classes that would prepare me to be an artist and writer. I dropped out of band and even went to school in the summer so that I could take more electives. That D changed my life. It’s funny because I was one person away from graduating with honors and part of me could be mad about it, because I had worked so hard. But I wasn’t in the National Honor Society or graduating with the smart kids because of that D. And that was fine — I refused to peak in high school. Better things were on the way. I learned that thanks to that class, that teacher and yes, this movie.

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