Real Genius focuses on Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret), a 15-year old science prodigy. A professor (and dean), a Carl Sagan-inspired professor, Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton), recruits Mitch to attend the Pacific Institute of Science and Technology. Hathaway is eager to exploit Mitch's laser-related research for a defense-funded laser project. If completed, the project would allow the U.S. to kill a human target from outer space, but Hathaway doesn't mention the project's intended use to Mitch. Hathaway and his college team, however, are at least 18 months away from success. His CIA superiors and the military want a successful test of the laser in four months. That explains Mitch's unusual mid-year acceptance to Pacific Tech.
Once at Pacific Tech, Mitch meets his new roommate, Chris Knight (Val Kilmer), a senior rebel with a clue when it comes to authority and authority figures (he hates them both). Mitch is less a protagonist driving the action through his choices or non-choices, than the catalyst for actions by those around him, especially Chris, who, through his centrality and actions, deserves to be considered the real protagonist in Real Genius. Every interaction gives Knight the opportunity to subvert social conventions and insult his slower-witted opponents, including Hathaway, and Kent (Robert Prescott), the sycophantic team leader of Hathaway's super-secret laser project. After Hathaway replaces Kent with Mitch as the team leader, Kent turns against Mitch, attempting to humiliate him at every turn.
Mitch's struggles to adjust to his academic work load and Hathaway's project leads to a montage of Mitch losing control to Comsat Angels' "I'm Falling." A second, later montage focuses on Knight's late-film reversal from subversive anti-authoritarian to de facto project leader as Chaz Jankel's "Number One" provides the score. Either one certainly qualifies for "scenes we love" status, but Real Genius' brilliance extends to multiple scenes, including the introduction of Mitch's romantic interest, Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), an over-caffeinated, insomniac Pacific Tech student, a party involving student beauticians (look for Stargate/Independence Day/Godzilla writer-producer Dean Devlin in a cameo and Tom Hanks an uncredited extra), the repeated disappearance and appearance of a former Pacific Tech student, Lazlo Hollyfeld (Jon Gries) via the door in Mitch's closet, Knight and Mitch's revenge on Kent and Hathaway.
Here's Real Genius' first great montage:
And here's the second great montage:
Although director Martha Coolidge (Angie, Lost in Yonkers, Rambling Rose, Valley Girl) didn't receive screenplay credit, she revised Neal Israel and Pat Proft's screenplay first with Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (both uncredited) and later with writer Peter Torokvei. Given that, breaking down the dialogue by writer may be impossible, so let's give credit where credit is due: to the three writers and Martha Coolidge. Given Knight's subversive anti-authoritarianism, he gets most of the best lines (e.g., "I am reminded of the words of Socrates when he said, "I drank WHAT?!"'), but the screenplay gives great lines to practically every character, even characters that appear in one or two scenes (e.g., Deborah Foreman, the star of Coolidge's Valley Girl, easily has the most memorable R-rated line in the film).
Scenes, dialogue, and performances from Kilmer and the supporting cast, including William Atherton, perfectly (type)cast as an amoral egotist and Jon Gries as a laconic burnout, all contribute to Real Genius' success, but so does Real Genius' satire of the military-industrial complex and the universities, personified by Hathaway, who get in bed with the military-industrial complex to access research dollars, regardless of the moral and ethical implications of their theoretical or practical work for the government. It's all light, broadly handled, but definitely welcome during Reagan's second term as president, not to mention rare in a financed and distributed film by a Hollywood studio.
If, by some oversight, you haven't seen Real Genius yet, here's a link to the very 1980s trailer.
So what's your favorite scene from Real Genius? Or is it too hard to pick just one? And are you looking forward to the remake, currently set for a release in 2013?