Most films wish they could hold up as well as Martha Coolidge’s classic coming-of-age tale.
Real Genius is a breezy ‘80s coming-of-age comedy starring Val Kilmer in one of his iconic earlier roles as eccentric genius Chris Knight. The film is the story of child prodigy Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret), who is recruited from high school into a prestigious laser program at the Pacific Technical University alongside Knight, which, unbeknownst to them, is a front for military weapons development. For an ‘80s film, the movie is surprisingly tame and much more wholesome than I remembered, with Mitch falling head over heels for Jordan (Michelle Meyrink), the eccentric insomniac genius of the bunch. It’s a comedy with a bit of a melancholic streak as we see the intellect harnessed to develop weapons rather than to enrich the betterment of man.
There’s a lot to really love here, from Kilmer, who is in his prime and just really inhabits Knight with an endearing aloofness, to the blossoming romance storyline. It’s those building blocks that director Martha Coolidge (Valley Girl) and screenwriter Neal Israel shape into one of the quintessential 80s comedies, which ends in a bittersweet credit roll to one of the greatest anthems of the period, Tears for Fears’s “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Though you might not know Israel by name, you would recognize his comedic writing and directing chops if you grew up in the ‘80s, with such credits as Bachelor Party, Moving Violations, Surf Ninjas, Police Academy, and Look Who’s Talking Too.
Real Genius was recently released on 4K UHD in a stunning presentation, albeit with a bit more DNR than I would like. This helps in noticing some of the background production design in the dorm rooms and hallways, which is lush with little details and nods to the iconic characters. It was fun just watching the film, but it adds a whole new level to be able to spot some of the odds and ends in Chris’ room.
The film also sounds better than ever. Given the iconic soundtrack, the film is paired with an Atmos track that really highlights the music choices, with a surprising clarity and oomph to your low channel. The mix may be a bit bass heavy for some, but I really loved how it filled out the audio range of my setup.
While the release is light on extras, you do get an informative commentary by director Coolidge, a deleted scene (the infamous balloon chair scene from the trailer!), and few raw takes that really show the chemistry onset. For those like myself who grew up watching the film, it does include the TV cut of the movie as well. To be honest, I forgot how wholesome this film was; in a sea of boner comedies that went low, Real Genius went high. It was a rare film of its time and is one of my favorite Val Kilmer performances, a take that manages to inject so much humanity and nuance in a character that could have simply been comic relief. Real Genius is one of those rare films that is just as good as I remembered, and still has something important to say about the cost of genius.