With few exceptions, the majority of college comedies follow a formulaic approach which can be broken down in three parts: characters defying authority, characters getting crocked on massive amount of beer, and characters scheming to get into the campus babe’s pants. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
However, “Real Genius (1985)” takes a unique approach to college life, chronicling a group of super-smart students at fictional Cal-Tech (a thinly disguised California Institute of Technology), and eschewing the usual campus hi-jinks for something rarely found in such films: a plot.
Val Kilmer stars as Chris Knight, a brilliant senior who wholly embraces his eccentricities and delights in throwing people off balance with his irreverent comments and snappy retorts. Chris is paired with freshman roommate Mitch Taylor (Gabe Jarret), a 15 year-old wunderkind who has been granted early admission to Cal-Tech by the conniving Dr. Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) to work on Hathaway’s laser project.
Where most films would have Chris and Mitch interact as a kind of adolescent Odd Couple, director Martha Coolidge pairs them as friends, with Chris Knight mentoring the naà¯ve and uptight Mitch and teaching him that having a good time is just as essential as working. The two have various comedic encounters with fellow dorm dweller – and brownnoser to Dr. Hathaway – Kent (Robert Prescott), who spends almost as much of his time trying to derail Chris and Mitch from succeeding as he does sucking up the his professor.
Unbeknownst to the students, Dr, Hathaway’s laser project is being financed by the military, which plan to use it as a weapon for assassinating foreign leaders. As their work on the laser project stalls, Hathaway – who freely misappropriates project funds for his own use – grows more agitated, and the students are put under greater pressure to produce results.
Ultimately, Chris and Mitch produce a working laser at the requested power level, but are soon sought out by former Cal-Tech student Lazlo Hollyfeld (played with neurotic brilliance by character actor Jon Gries), who informs them that the laser is in all probability useful only as a weapon.
Chris, Mitch, Lazlo, and even Kent – though he is unaware of it – join forces to stop Dr. Hathaway and the project from ever being implemented, and the film rolls along nicely to its climax, culminating in the students exacting their revenge upon Dr. Hathaway in a most unusual – and wickedly funny – way.
“Real Genius” is not part of the popular culture in the same way that college comedies like “Animal House” or even “Old School” can claim, but it is a smart film, and its explorations of youthful idealism, friendship and remaining true to one’s self (without becoming didactic) are as satisfying today as when the film was first released.