Thursday, September 7, 2017

Real Genius

(PG, Tri-Star Pictures, 108 mins., theatrical release date: August 7, 1985)

When Amy Heckerling directed Cameron Crowe's script for Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982, she demonstrated a rare sense of objectivity in an era of gross objectification. Since a lot of these teen exploitation movies were either transparently calculated or stiffly personal, what redeemed Fast Times wasn't just the savvy in casting the roles, from Sean Penn's dominating doper to the Martin Twins who stormed out of Captain Hook Fish & Chips, but Heckerling's finesse in handling the many tones of the film. It was as situational as a Porky's, but not as sensational. Her outsider's perspective (as well as Crowe's) didn't force the amiability or leaden either the melodrama or the madcap tangents. What resulted was a hang-out movie worthy of its Sherman Oaks Galleria setting, as well as a more perceptive and less shallow depiction of the worn rites-of-passage tropes.

Martha Coolidge's Valley Girl arrived next year to confirm the welcome difference in hiring untested female formalists of collegiate breeding as opposed to utter schlock merchants. Though staler than Fast Times, given a subplot that deliberately quoted The Graduate as well as the star-crossed romance which was its crux, Valley Girl took a social idiosyncrasy which was the stuff of Zappa-worthy disdain and made a genuine effort to invest us in the fashion plate heroine and her vulgar but charismatic love interest. Deborah Foreman established her perky cult credentials (it's a real shame she never got the Kim Cattrall breakout she deserved) and Nicolas Cage's rise started out in captivating earnest. Frederic Forrest and Colleen Camp weren't bad nor badly-written as the parental units, and the soundtrack actually corralled both The Plimsouls and Josie Cotton to perform on camera. Like Fast Times, Valley Girl seemed like a more authentic scene than most chintzy movie campuses.

As the '80s teen movie finally stopped getting lucrative on its basic/base fascination with puberty, Heckerling and Coolidge's careers differentiated quite starkly. Amy Heckerling branched out to mainstream comedy quite unevenly with Johnny Dangerously and National Lampoon's European Vacation before getting associated with the decent Look Who's Talking! and its abysmal sequels. She waited until the 1980s were well over before going back to the teen mill, starting all over with 1995's own trend-defining Clueless. Martha Coolidge, meanwhile, stayed in the youthful groove as Paramount's hired gun for their overdue adaptation of The Joy of Sex. Alas, pressure from the studio to conform to the lowest common denominator, echoing her previous struggle with Valley Girl, resulted in her considering the fabled Alan Smithee credit, which she later regretted declining. In 1985, Coolidge returned to form with Real Genius.

At first glance, Real Genius looked as unpromising as The Joy of Sex for Ms. Coolidge. It's all in the presence of hack scriptwriters Neal Israel (Amy Heckerling's former husband) & Pat Proft, creators of the runaway smash Police Academy as well as Bachelor Party and Moving Violations. The comedic trend these men were cashing in on is better associated with producer Ivan Reitman and his slob comedy touchstones Caddyshack, Meatballs and Stripes. Reitman's films, which harkened back to the anarchic culture clash scenarios of the Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges, launched Saturday Night Live's sardonic Bill Murray as movie star (their shared peak being Ghostbusters), the 1980s heir to inveterate wisenheimer Groucho Marx. And it was Murray's shadow in which Tom Hanks, Steve Guttenberg and Bill's own sibling John were cloaked. Just as John Belushi set the gold standard for chunky party animals (and by my estimation, that includes Rodney Dangerfield as much as Joe Rubbo), Bill Murray epitomized the slacker's swagger through playing the kind of puckish schmoe it pays not to underestimate.

For Real Genius, Israel & Proft provided yet another Bill Murray replica in the form of Chris Knight, the senior stud at Pacific Tech who came to an epiphany after observing the mental breakdown of a fellow whiz kid and now applies his own advanced intellect to less introverted pursuits. No longer shackled to white shirts and hush puppies, Chris embraces mock-sloganeering tees ("Surf Nicaragua") and penguin slippers. His thermos of frozen nitrogen can be carved into coins to outsmart the rec room's vending machines. And in lieu of brain-frying study work, Chris preoccupies himself with such extracurricular amenities as mutant hamster races, Madame Currie look-alike contests (there was one contestant, and he was later disqualified) and crashing the tanning invitational held by the Wanda Trussler School of Beauty. If he's going to embrace being a smarty-pants, Chris figures he's going to work on the smart-ass which best fits.

Had Neal Israel directed this himself, the actor playing Chris would no doubt look like another Bill Murray doppelganger, too. Retooled by Martha Coolidge, who coaxed a convincingly lovesick but playful Nicolas Cage in his first leading role, she notched another victory by landing Val Kilmer, fresh off the ZAZ trio's Top Secret! After a heated career in which, during its height, he played Jim Morrison, Bruce Wayne and Doc Holliday, it took a Gay Perry to remind us what a find Kilmer was in the mid-1980s. Whether acting an Elvis send-up whose hits included "Skeet Surfin'" and "Straighten the Rug" or as the sassy foil to Robert Downey Jr., Kilmer had both impeccable taste in comedy projects and the mischievous, self-effacing charisma to match. Kilmer gets an exquisitely snappy, high-energy showcase here not unlike Cage's Randy from Valley Girl, as well as a fully-rounded character.

But despite the promotional materials, Val Kilmer wasn't all that Real Genius had to offer. 14-year-old newcomer Gabriel Jarret (we'll discount his brief appearance in Going Ape!) is also appealing as Mitch Taylor, the freshman prodigy who is plucked from the Western Regional science fair by celebrity brainiac Dr. Jerome Hathaway (William "Wally Wick" Atherton, officious as ever) to join Chris Knight in his research development team. The kids' mission is to unwittingly invent a new five-megawatt laser capable of vaporizing an object from space, thus Real Genius offers a tantalizing take-down of the "Star Wars" initiative of the Reagan presidency. This death ray, the Crossbow as named by its CIA backers, is even introduced like a toy following a credits sequence pitting diagrams of various tools of destruction against the jazz standard "You Took Advantage of Me."

Mitch, a guppy with advanced theories in florescent compound physics, is the kind of idealist Chris was in his first three years as the smartest person in the room. There's also a third young man with the same jaded trajectory as Chris, Lazlo Hollyfeld, played by Jonathan (TerrorVision) Gries. Hollyfeld, who is smarter than Mitch and Chris combined, used to slave over his own scientific breakthroughs before being told that was he designing was potentially lethal. This rendered him a gentle hermit with a mysterious ability to walk into Mitch's closet and vanish into thin air. Pacific Tech has the kind of atmosphere where it's sink or swim, some students managing to thrive under pressure and others cracking. Since Mitch is still a child, he seems poised for an early breakdown, especially thanks to ruthless sycophant Kent (Robert Prescott), who's angling for team leadership in between substitute teaching gigs and dry cleaner errands for Dr. Hathaway.

Certain plot elements in Real Genius cater to Israel & Proft's puerile flavor of humor, especially the character of PR executive Sherry Nugil (Patti D'Arbanville), a "genius groupie" who tries to seduce Mitch in a surprise visit. That it doesn't devolve into another Private Lessons comes down to Martha Coolidge and co-writer P.J. Torokvei's decision to introduce a female Pacific Tech student who is more compatible for Mitch in both intelligence and innocence. Enter the director's good luck charm: Michelle Meyrink (also from Revenge of the Nerds as well as Coolidge's previous comedies) as the tirelessly inventive Jordan Cochran, which can charitably be called the Joan Cusack role. Assertive in her own spaced-out way as Chris and Dr. Hathaway, Jordan lacks the filter preventing all of her idle thoughts from verbal expression. She holds her own compared to her rambunctious male counterparts and, with her bobbed hair and spontaneous work ethic, struck a blow for female representation in the campus comedy. The character of Gadget Hackenwrench from Disney's Chip 'N' Dale Rescue Rangers was directly inspired by Jordan.

With a bevy of likeable characters and adroit performers (Atherton imbues his flagrant villain with OCD hang-ups and a few colicky outbursts), Real Genius does achieve a sort of delirious chemical bond. There are wittier lines and gags in Coolidge's film alone than any five sons of Animal House fused together. A student nicknamed Ick (Mark Kamiyama) transforms dry ice fog into solid matter suitable for indoor skating and sledding. Pressed by Chris to reveal his secret, Ick retorts: "Oh, sure. I tell you, then you tell somebody else, and the next thing you know, we're in the middle of another ice age." Hollyfeld, who has finally acquired "certain materialistic needs," breaks a Frito-Lay sweepstakes like it was the bell curve. And Mitch's initial impression of campus life is thrown into a loop by a math class which grows increasingly remote; the absent students set up boom boxes and tape recorders to record, resulting in a hilarious pay-off.

Ed Lauter (the principal shadow man), Stacy "Dogtown" Peralta, Louis Giambalvo, Severn Darden ("I think the young people enjoy it when I 'get down' verbally, don't you?"), Sandy Martin, Paul Tulley & Joanne Baron (Mitch's dim parents), and Deborah Foreman (kissing off Chris like his name was Tommy) do well peripherally. Among the outstanding tech credits, which include a fine batch of production/set designers doubling Caltech, are Risky Business editor Richard Chew and the esteemed Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. To my memory, this is one of the rare '80s teen movies shot in 2.35:1 Panavision, which accommodates the sleek design of the Crossbow as well as the irresistible way it is recalibrated to get revenge on the unethical Dr. Hathaway. The use of Tears for Fears at the end clinches the deal, with the soundtrack also boasting Tonio K., Don Henley, Bryan Adams, The Call, The System, and The Comsat Angels.

Alas, for as many quality teen movies which came out in the overcrowded year of our Lord 1985 ("This is Jesus, Kent, and you've been a very naughty boy!"), the trend as a whole seemed to be disappearing quicker than Lazlo Hollyfeld. With the exceptions tied to Steven Spielberg (Back to the Future no doubt gave a push to Teen Wolf at the summer's end) and John Hughes, youthful comedies weren't topping the box-office surveys or sticking around long enough to earn anything beyond breakeven sums. The Sure Thing and Porky's Revenge each finished around the $20 million mark, and not even Top 10 singles by Madonna (the chart-topping ballad "Crazy for You," which she performed in the actual movie), Journey ("Only the Young") and Pat Benatar helped Vision Quest ($13 million) and The Legend of Billie Jean (stalling at $3.1 million during the summer of '85, Benatar's theme song "Invincible" peaked months after the movie flopped). All these underachieving teen movies released that year became strictly cult classics, be they Real Genius or Better Off Dead or Girls Just Want to Have Fun or Just One of the Guys (another surprise teen romp from a female filmmaker) or both of Kelly Preston's star turns.

But if there is has to be some kind of honor roll, even if it's a "moral imperative" that you grade on a curve (maybe do that for Better Off Dead and Just One of the Guys), Real Genius is a definite shoo-in for the very best teen comedies not just of 1985, but the entire decade. It's as fluffy as the nougat in a Three Musketeers bar, to be honest, but Martha Coolidge took what could've been another formula comedy and teased out honest-to-goodness belly laughs, a veneer of pacifistic satire within the subterfuge and a really solid string of performances. You could spend hours trying to determine who were the real geniuses of this genre of comedy, but Coolidge was undeniably a true savant.

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