Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Real Genius

What about that time I caught you naked with the bowl of Jell-O?

For those who don’t know, Real Genius is an 80s movie about smart kids going to CalTech PacificTech and wacky hi-jinx ensue. I could tell you plot, but I think you can figure it out from here.

I first saw the movie on TV, my mom recorded and then I watched and re-watched it over and over again as only a kid can. It’s an easy movie to watch over and over because it’s an episodic plot-driven comedy. This is in contrast to plot driven movies like Sherlock Holmes. Mysteries are plot-driven, but they don’t have a lot of self-contained scenes that you can drop in and out of, each scene uses the ones before it and the ones after it to explain the over-all mystery. Probably the best example of this Memento; by showing the movie in small chunks backwards, Memento builds-up to an explanation step-by-step.

Plot driven movies are movies where things happen. Character driven movies are where characters change. The quintessential character driven movie is probably Lost in Translation. Very little happens in the movie, but we see the characters move through the movie, changing and responding to their environment.

Of course, Real Genius and Lost in Translation are at the extremes, but if you want a shortcut to figuring out if something is more on the plot driven than character driven, I got one. If, when you talk about the movie, you say things like “Oh! and there’s that scene where they covered the dorm with ice and Val Kilmer is ice skating in the dorm! And it is SOOO COOL!!” Then it’s plot driven (and episodic). But if you talk about it like “she was so sad and lonely, I can’t imagine what I would do if I was in a foreign country and didn’t know anyone. I’d go crazy.” Then it’s definitely character driven.

Anyways, if you can’t tell, my favorite scene is when the dorm is indeed covered with ice. The scene is mostly gratuitous to the main plot. (It does introduce a main character) But then, we’re dealing with a movie where the characters aren't even aware of the plot until the third act. So why is it in the movie? Simple, because the purpose of the movie is to show genius college kids doing wacky things. Seriously, why wasn’t this movie wasn’t picked-up for a TV series? It’s my dream to develop a TV sitcom on CBS with this premise. It can air right after How I Met Your Mother.


Real Genius isn’t the kind of movie that gets noticed for it’s acting. Good acting comments usually come-up in two situations: one, when the actor has to recite long monologs written over a hundred years ago. And two, when fanboys like myself see our favorite character in a live action movie played by an actor who we feel embodies the part. (See Iron Man and Superman.) But a movie like Real Genius is a comedy with lots of rapid fire dialogue. As someone who’s tried to do that, I can tell you it’s not easy and it requires skill. Everyone in the move does a good job of discussing technical matters and acting like it’s second nature to them.

Val Kilmer has one of the harder roles in the movie because he has switch back and forth. He has to make us believe that he’s both smart and a goof-off. Sometimes at the same time. A good example is when Mitch falls asleep and starts having a nightmare. Chris (Kilmer’s character), shows compassion for Mitch and tells him to go to bed. It’s a nice moment and we see Chris’s serious side in a more appealing light. The scenes between Chris and Hathaway (the professor) are another good example. Hathaway, tired of Chris’s shenanigans and frustrated that the brightest student he has isn’t kissing-up to him, regularly brings out Chris’s duality.

Gabriel Jarret first has to sell us on the fish out of water scenario, no a hard thing to do. He has help from his wardrobe and his haircut. However, half way through the file he has to sell us on his change. His wardrobe and haircut stay the same. It’s not a startling as the back and forth Val does, but Mitch gets a few good moments where you can tell he’s relaxed a lot, but hasn’t gone to Chris levels yet. However, Mitch’s best scene is when Jordan comes into the boys bathroom and carries on a hyperactive conversation with Mitch. Gabriel Jarret does a good job selling us on both of Mitch’s conflicting emotions: horror at a girl in the bathroom and attraction at her as well. It’s great.

Jon Gries has an interesting part. He talks a lot slower than the rest of the group, and he has to be smart and child like at the same time. He also seems taller than the rest of the cast, but I just looked and Val’s about an inch taller than Jon. Of course, this might not have been true in 1985, but both actors were adults by then. Anyways, the interesting part with Lazlo is that his creepiness. Jon’s worked a lot since Real Genius, but I haven’t seen most if. But based on this performance, he could be a cryptic creepy guy in horror movies. Over the course of the movie, we see three sides to Lazo: the creepy side, the child like side, and his assertive side. His assertive side comes when he talks to gang about what would you use a 5 mega watt laser for? We see a small part of how quickly his mind works, and get a glimpse of how much it angered him when he found out that he was inventing things to kill people.

The 80s

Over on tvtropes.org, a troper observed “[a]t no point does any of the protagonists bother to exposit why its so wrong to build a laser capable of vaporizing ground targets from space.” Very true. The movie goes even farther, though. The first two scenes are a video promoting the use of a laser capable of “vaporizing a human target from space” and a meeting between men in suits laughing that the laser is “both immoral and unethical.” The movie doesn’t seem to shy away from the conclusion that the proposed weapon is bad and the people in the room are bad people. To drive this home, George resigns during the meeting and walks out of the meeting. It’s implied that that he’s going to be murdered for leaving.

The threat of murder gives Don an incentive to harp on Prof. Hathaway to finish the weapon by the end of the school year. The causes Hathaway to put pressure on his students.

By contrast, it’s explicitly stated that Lazlo went crazy because he found out that the stuff he was working on was “killing people.” Of course, it’s Lazlo who figures out that the laser’s job is to kill people. No one explains why this wrong.

Today, a weapon that can kill a single person from outer space sounds perfect. Life would have been a lot easier if we could have just zap Saddam Hussein from orbit. Why spend the manpower on a costly, and dangerous land evasion if we can achieve what we want with out it? Saddam’s dead, and we’re still in Iraq. Wouldn’t it have been better to just not go?

But in the 80s, there was a kind of fatigue with the cold war. We were tired of it. Building better weapons seemed like a good idea during the Cuban Missile Crisis and WWII. But after nearly 40 years of non-violent hostility, we were tired. Not everyone who wanted to major in physics or engineering wanted to build weapons for the government of build the next atom bomb. Frankly, some of us weren’t sure if we ever were going to be in another war. (Our next War, as official as Vietnam was, was only a few weeks long and we won.)

IMDb has an entry for a Real Genius movie in 2013. If it’s a remake, I think the timing will be right. In 2013, the war in Iraq will have gone on for 10 years, I think we will be very fatigued from the whole thing. The Patriot act will be old and I’ll bet you’ll see some reference to patron records being searched. (Prediction, the war in Iraq will not end until after the 2012 election, because it won’t be politically safe to withdraw the troops until Obama’s a lame duck, or another president is in office on an bring the troops home platform.)

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