Bold Boys with Big Brains
In a celebrated 1962 essay, film critic Manny Farber proposed that a fundamental distinction can be drawn between what he calls white elephant art and termite art. The former “treats every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for praiseworthy creativity,” while the latter engages in “bug-like immersion in a small area.” Nevertheless, Farber does not value one type of film over the other, but uses the descriptive terms only to distinguish notable styles.
If the white elephant type of film dehydrates all distinction out of its material, the other nails down isolated details without glamorizing them or drawing attention to the process. For Farber, Michelangelo Antonioni is the epitome of the white elephant while Howard Hawks unassumingly pursues termite ambitions.
Now, consider the often disparaged teen pic, particularly that of 1980s vintage. Certainly not a genre known for its “praiseworthy creativity,” the seemingly endless parade of babes and boys who populate these pictures appear entrapped in a state of constant arousal and perpetual stupefaction. With few notable exceptions—like Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982), John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club (1985), and Michael Dinner’s Heaven Help Us (1985)—it is hard to think of this generation as much more than a simple-minded combination of testosterone and tomfoolery. Some sophisticated observers have argued that a Bahktinian form of the carnivalesque redeems the best of these pictures. William Paul provides the most compelling version of this position in Laughing Screaming, yet I would argue that only a handful of teen pics interrogate the parameters of taste in a satisfying manner. More often than not, a fart joke ends up being simply a matter of hot air.
None too many of the protagonists in ‘80s teen films could be accused of being rocket scientists. In fact, any individual that might be characterized as mentally proficient often comes in for ritualized abuse, as if their very intelligence amounted to a crime against nature. The Revenge of the Nerds films, for example, made the possession of gray matter seem like a severe genetic mutation with all the undesirable side effects imaginable.
Real Genius, on the other hand, remains a welcome and well-crafted exception to the rule. It takes place at Pacific Tech, a fictional equivalent of MIT or Cal Tech. The egotistical scientist Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) recruits 16-year-old whiz kid Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret) in order to add his expertise in laser research to Hathaway’s assembly of research students, led by the soon-to-graduate egghead Chris Knight (Val Kilmer). Hathaway intends to have Mitch replace Chris as the group’s “number one stud” and to complete the technology that will arm the military’s clandestine Crossbow Project.
Mitch discovers Chris has unbuttoned his collar and recovered his sense of balance within the high-pressure world of governmentally funded research by engaging in sophisticated pranks that undermine the institution’s stuffiness. In time the younger student loosens up under Chris’s influence and eventually loses his innocence when he discovers the tactical uses Hathaway intends to make of their research. When the professor absconds with their research, Chris and Mitch, together with the hyperactive Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), fellow student “Ick” Nagami (Mark Kamiyama) and campus hermit Lazslo (Jonathon Gries), take their revenge on Hathaway by means of a critical readjustment of the lasers they designed and a large supply of popcorn.
Insofar as the parameters of the teen pic remain pretty firmly in place, the elements that make Real Genius stand out from the competition are the kind of termite-like details that arise from Martha Coolidge’s unflashy but astute direction and the ingratiating performances from its leads. Coolidge had renowned cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Deliverance, among many others) shoot the picture in wide-screen format—not a customary ratio for comedy. She does not use the added sense of space to separate individuals or actions, but to keep the compositional focus tightly on her characters and not on peripheral details—and thus her termite like ambitions.
Just so, many of the funniest gags come across as virtual throwaways or are contained in montages, as when the students and professor in one of Mitch’s classes are gradually all replaced by tape recorders. Coolidege rarely calls attention to laughs through aggressive editing or over the top characterizations. Even the butt of Chris and Mitch’s ire, Hathaway’s student toady Kent (Robert Prescott), is vigorously tormented but never made an obnoxious caricature.
The focus Coolidge maintains is helped by the affable performances throughout. In only his second film, Kilmer makes Chris a smart aleck, but never a smartass, who establishes a believable friendship with his teenage roommate. Jarret never made another film of any note, but the manner in which he alternates between deadpan earnestness and a loopy sense of absurdity is quite winning. The sole female character of note in the story, Meyrink’s Jordan, remains a unique creation. Her hair in a Louis Brooks-like pageboy cut, Jordan talks a mile a minute, never sleeps and expends her excess energy in random projects like waxing the floors of her room. Silly as such antics might seem, Coolidge does not permit her leads to descend into smugness or self-righteousness. For all their animosity toward Dr. Hathaway, they retain joy in the exercise of their intelligence and the emotional rewards of their bonds as friends and colleagues.
Whereas most teen films collapse into a mindless sequence of witless one-liners and antiquated sight gags, Real Genius remains effervescent and engaging. The tactical weapon sent aloft by the Crossbow Project may crash and burn, but this picture remains blissfully aloft, borne by engaging actors and a warm heart.