1980s Comedies Marathon, Part 2: Real Genius (1985)

Val Kilmer in Real Genius

What happened to Val Kilmer? He emerged as a heartthrob in the '80s and moved into solid dramatic work during the '90s. He even came out of Batman Forever unscathed. There are plenty of recent credits on his resume, including a conventional supporting performance in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Kilmer's just not getting the quality parts that made him a star in those earlier decades. This week, I'm heading back to his second movie role in the Martha Coolidge comedy Real Genius. Although Gabriel Jarret technically plays the lead of this story, its Kilmer who gets top billing. For better or worse, he takes over the screen in nearly every scene and shows major charisma.

What’s the movie about?
Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret) receives an invitation to the prestigious Pacific Tech as a 15-year-old. He's a science prodigy, and Professor Hathaway (William Atherton) is desperate for help with his laser program for the military. Mitch's roommate is the infamous Chris Knight (Val Kilmer), who's brilliant but would rather do anything than focus on the laser. He introduces Mitch to plenty of silliness around campus, and the young guy even starts a possible romance with the eccentric Jordan (Michelle Meyrink). When the fun starts interfering with the laser, Hathaway steps in to regain control. The students don't realize they're working on a military weapon, and he's facing serious pressure to get them in line.

Gabriel Jarret and Val Kilmer in Real Genius

Does the story hold up well today?
Similar to The Money Pit, this movie is connected with it specific era. The '80s was a wonderful time for a high-concept comedy that doesn't take itself seriously. Unlike that film, Real Genius is quirkier and isn't just a slapstick exercise. There's plenty of creativity on display, particularly with the set-up at the college. Mirrored after CalTech, this haven for scientific geniuses is filled with unique devices and decor. There's even a mysterious guy (Jon Gries) who walks through Mitch's room and disappears into the closet. We eventually learn where he goes, but Mitch's confusion is a clever touch. While I wouldn't say this story holds up well, it has a spontaneous energy that has developed a cult following. It's an original comedy and keeps us interested even when some of the situations fall flat.

Real Genius, directed by Martha Coolidge

What are the signature moments that embody the ‘80s and its movies?
This entire movie represents the '80s, particularly its comedies. The plot revolves around a laser that can kill individuals from space, and that's just the starting point. That doesn't seem like the most cost-efficient way to take out an enemy. The premise is really just a set-up to get us to the school for the zaniness. The bright-eyed Mitch is our entry point into this wacky environment, particularly with Chris. He's the superstar of the school and drives Hathaway crazy because he isn't focused on the laser. It's the typical "rebels vs. authority" story that's present in a lot of movies from this decade. While it's a conventional formula, there's something charming about watching the actors having fun with silly material.

Michelle Meyrink in Real Genius

What performances stand out as remarkable and/or ridiculous?
This is Kilmer's movie, but a few other actors manage to stand out. Michelle Meyrink brings the right mix of goofiness and likability to Jordan. I don't buy the romance with Mitch, but she sells her behavior. Jon Gries has become a staple of indie films and delivered plenty of interesting characters. Back in 1985, he was just getting started, but that talent is evident with his mostly silent role as Lazlo Hollyfield. It's a bit disappointing to see the mystery revealed because he played it so well. William Atherton followed his sniveling bureaucrat in Ghostbusters with this part, and it's basically the same performance. One character who falls flat is Kent (Robert Prescott), who's such an obvious villain that he becomes painful. His ridiculous braces, awful clothes, and silly expressions induce more groans than jeers.

Jon Gries in Real Genius

What are some of the most memorable scenes?
This movie is basically a collection of scenes loosely connected by a thin plot. I really didn't care if they solved the problems with the laser, but I enjoyed the ride. Chris finds time to throw a big party inside the school auditorium that includes water slides and girls with big hair. The end result is disaster when Kent spills the beans to Atherton, but it's a fun sequence. Mitch's discovery of Lazlo's lair is another good sequence and sends the innocent lad down an elevator and into a strange lair. While his small abode seems a bit underwhelming after all the hoopla to get there, the odd journey is worth it.

Gabriel Jarret in Real Genius

Have I really missed anything by not seeing this movie?
Although I can't label Real Genius as an earth-shattering experience, it provides some good fun. It's hard to pin down what makes it work, but it has a goofball charm. Jarret is a bit flat as the lead, but that makes it easier for Kilmer to take over the movie. If Mitch was too charismatic, he'd compete with Chris for attention and split the movie. I'll admit that it isn't completely successful, and the hokey ending loses a bit of steam. Even so, it's worth checking out for a look back at the high-concept silliness of the 1980s.

Next week, I'll close this marathon and join Tom Cruise for some Risky Business.


  1. i enjoyed watching this back in the days.

    1. I missed it when I was a kid, but I'm sure it had to be fun back in the '80s. I enjoyed catching up with it finally.

  2. This was a really fun movie. I feel that this film and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang are Kilmer's two best movies.

    1. Chip, I agree that it's an entertaining movie and was a big surprise for me. I didn't have very high expectations, and Kilmer has a lot of fun in the part.


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