Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Johnny California: REAL GENIUS

 by JB

Thanks to Sony’s recent 4K Blu-ray release of this delightful film, I got to visit with an old friend.

My most memorable screening of Real Genius was not seeing it the weekend it opened in August, 1985, at the late, lamented Century 1, 2, 3 in Schaumburg, Illinois. (In its opening weekend, Real Genius was jostling for recognition with similarly-themed teenage tech/comedy films My Science Project, released the very same weekend; Weird Science, which had been released the week before; and Creator, released a mere five weeks later.) No, the best screening of Real Genius was at the Film Center of the Art Institute a few years later. It was part of a double feature with Valley Girl and director Martha Coolidge was in attendance, introduced the films, and presided over a lively Q & A. If I remember correctly, as a then-high-school-teacher, I got to thank her for making a teen comedy that actually whispered that it was (Shhhh!) good to be smart.

Sorry Patrick, Nicolas Cage was not in attendance.
The Plot in Brief: High school science wunderkind Mitch Taylor (Gabe Jarret) is recruited by Pacific Tech professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) to enroll in the school and work on a special government research project. Mitch finds he is roommates with campus legend Chris Knight (Val Kilmer) who—besides being incredibly smart—resorts to immature joking and pranks to avoid preparing to graduate and join the real world. Mitch and Chris become fast friends, solve Hathaway’s tricky research problem, but are left wondering just what the hell their intellects have created.

The other night I spun the new disc (Which you would know if you read my tweets) and was impressed by how well the film holds up and how much of the humor is still really funny. I don’t want to spoil all the one-liners, but I am hard-pressed to think of a funnier joke than when Mitch finally goes to Jordan’s dorm room in the middle of the night... and she’s power sanding the floor.

The film prophesizes drone technology that can vaporize a single human target from space. Does that premise seem far-fetched? Consider the latest Al Queda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to be taken out by the US government. I remember how queasy I felt reading about the actual weapon used. According to armyrecognition.com: “The MQ-9 Reaper fired Hellfire AGM-114R9X missiles, popularly known as ‘flying Ginsu’ among US officials. It is a warhead-less missile equipped with six razor-like blades popping out from the fuselage seconds before slicing through the target [...] Al-Zawahri was standing on the balcony of his hideout when the two Hellfire missiles were launched [...] One hit the balcony, while the other one hit al-Zawahiri.”

The cast of Real Genius is flawless, down to the smallest role. It’s a colorful parade of reliably funny people from the 1980s: Ed Lauter, Monte Landis, Patti D’Arbanville, Jon Gries, Severn Darden, Michelle Meyrink, and Deborah Foreman. (And imagine, this was only Val Kilmer’s second film!)

William Atherton makes a terrific villain; Real Genius is the second film in his legendary “What A Prick Trilogy,” which begins in 1984 with his portrayal of EPA bureaucrat Walter Peck in Ghostbusters and concludes with Die Hard’s hissable TV newsman Richard Thornburg in 1988. Atherton was the reliable, go-to comic villain of the 1980s. Has any actor ever been so effortlessly unlikeable? I love the scene in Real Genius when he shouts at Val Kilmer, “You are of no further use to me!” Kilmer’s deadpan response? “Interesting way to start a conversation.”

The film’s use of music is smart and funny, and I still remember director Coolidge talking about how much time and money went into securing the music rights for both Valley Girl and Real Genius. Valley Girl’s soundtrack is legendary (“I Melt with You,” anyone?) and Real Genius makes memorable use of Rosemary Clooney’s “You Took Advantage of Me,” Don Henley’s “All She Wants to Do is Dance,” and most especially Tears for Fears’s “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” I wonder how many people of my generation, hearing that song now on the radio, still envisions children playing in slow motion in an enormous pile of popcorn?
An entertaining bonus of rewatching the film: it filled me with nostalgia for my own college days, though those were more than forty years ago. Sure, I was no “genius,” real or otherwise; I never worked on a super-secret government “laser” project; and I never turned my dorm floor into a frozen skating rink; but I think most of us hold our school days dear and relish any chance to revisit those memories. Like American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused, and National Lampoon’s Animal House for moviegoers of my era (era) Real Genius is a nostalgia engine.

Gentle Reader, if you have never seen Real Genius, remedy that soon. The new Sony 4K Blu-ray is a treat. Or, if you haven’t seen it recently, by all means pay it a return visit—while keeping in mind the immortal words of Socrates:

“... I drank what?”


  1. Are you reading my mind, i just watched this over the weekend (but not the bluray though ☹️)

  2. Woot! Random brain droppings:

    #1 Thx for the tweets friend!...they reminded me i needed to seek out the original trailer with the deleted scene of Chris in the floating chair.
    (on youtube as "Real Genius (1985) Trailer #1")

    #2 Its uncanny what similar geographical circles some of us F This gang grew up in. TONS of fond memories of Century 1,2,3 from the 80s (several oft mentioned 3D flicks,original Terminator, etc). Maybe you rented a movie from me during the summer of 88 when i worked at the Precision Video in the same parking lot?

    #3 As a huge nerd WAY before it was respectable, this movie and the others referenced such as My Science Project and Weird Science, along with more obscure titles like the Manhattan Project and Electric Dreams* were INCREDIBLY important to me. The films painted the outcast nerds as heroes. Of them all this one stands out as the best made, funniest, most heart, and most rewatchable. Its brilliant!

    #4: Ironic you post this today.....im expecting the 4k at my porch any minute now...WHICH it bears mentioning for the physical media fans out there, is a BIG deal. Real Genius did hit bluray for a limited time but is long since OOP. The fact that we are getting a new release and its an upgrade is uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge.

    Peace .n. I WAS HOT AND HUNGRY!


    *Someone. Somewhere. Hear my plea. Pllllease release this movie on Blu...im not gonna push my luck and ask for 4k...but a Blu with ANY extras would be welcome. The cello duet alone will blow people away.

  3. OMG. I rented from Precision all the time. They had EVERYTHING: first time I ever saw Pink Flamingos was on a VHS tape rented from Precision. That place was great.

    1. Ha! Knew it! Only worked there for a smidge one summer but loved it SO much. There was another super small place that i loved in Barrington Square mall...i can never remember the name but it was down on the right side in a little alcove before the theaters (and pre-dated the theaters if memory served). WAY before blockuster. Was always fun to hit up that place for rentals and then just hang at Flip Side for hours.

  4. I have not thought about that wonderful Flip Side in decades! This convo is proving my point about Real Genius being a nostalgia engine that I make in the column!

    1. TOTALLY! (or should i say totally tubular?)

      Here's a nice little blog post on Flip Side Records...if you scan down in the comments i posted a while back about a couple experiences within...


      Hope y'all are doing swell in the new digs!!!!

  5. REAL GENIUS is one of my favorite comedies of all time. I quote it daily. I love how smart the characters are. And the movie has aged well, which I can't say for most 80s comedies about young people.

  6. Val Kilmer: “It’s good to be smart, Mitch. People depend on you.”

  7. Great write up JB! If you are taking requests I'd love your hot take on any of the following films: Cloak and Dagger, Flight of the Navigator, The Never Ending Story or Spies Like Us.

  8. Speaking of childhood nostalgia, Charles, I think I originally saw each one of those films at the same theater, the Randhurst 1 & 2 in Mount Prospect, IL. Look for a column on at least one of those films SOON.