Geek Flick

I was thinking to myself in the car today that it was about time to see Real Genius again. And then, when I was over at Rebecca and Dean's place, they'd been watching the Cubs get murderized by the Giants, and as a form of Cub euthanasia, we flipped through the channel guide, and discovered that Real Genius was coming on in ten minutes. Whoo-hoo! So, we started watching, only about ten minutes in, Charles arrived, and it turned out that he hadn't seen it ever. So Rebecca turned off the TV and dug her copy of the tape out and popped it in. She'd had to make a second tape of it -- the first one had worn out -- that's how much she likes this movie. And so we started the movie again from the start -- and since it was taped off of a pay cable channel, it was the full, unexpurgated version, complete with "six-inch spike" scene.

It's a truly great movie, on my infinite-replay list together with Sneakers, The Princess Bride, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and a few others of that ilk. The movies that are the most damn entertaining on a minute-by-minute basis, the ones that have a proper sense of fun. Being frequently rerun on TV doesn't hurt either -- Last of the Mohicans is well on its way towards claiming a place on the list, and I think the only thing keeping Rushmore and Tampopo back is that you don't run across them on lazy weekend afternoons flipping through USA or TNT. Of course, in my current non-TV-enabled state, this is sort of a strange claim, but this is what school break used to be all about, and whenever I visit my family, it always seems that at least one day we run across one of these fine films in its post-theatrical afterlife.

But anyway, Real Genius is a wonderful film so many different ways. The screenplay is classic, with wonderfully clever and characterizing dialog, and Val Kilmer's character gets off this endless progression of understated one liners. Kilmer, in fact, could have made the movie on his own: it may be his best performance before or since, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that my belief that he's a great actor is founded primarily on this movie. Structurally, I also like it more each time I see it. There's a sudden plot twist about two-thirds of the way in, when what had seemed perhaps an ending is revealed not to be one, except that so much information has been carefully laid leading up to the moment that it feels like a perfectly natural progression -- and yet the characters' surprise is still perfectly genuine. Also, Real Genius is a film unafraid to leave a lot of balls in the air at once -- there are about as many subplots as characters, and some wonderful running jokes, and their interconnection and juxtaposition is always unforced, somehow attuned to the multitasking and delicious randomness of college life.

More than just being a great movie, though, Real Genius is a great geek movie, perhaps the one that best epxreses all the truly great things about being geeky, shows off why geeks can be genuine and fully human heroes. In the converging journeys that Mitch and Chris make -- the former towards relaxation, the latter toward responsibility -- there is a wonderful sense of growth, that each is learning from the other and acquiring the other's good qualities. They're putting together the two halves of the geek brain -- work and play -- and tackling each with the same creative spark. This is a movie where the heroes are celebrated and triumph for being smarter than their adversaries, and making use of it On the other hand, the villains are plenty smart, too: they're just the ones who've gotten arrogant about it, who think of their brains as some kind of justification for a smug attitude. And in the end, Real Genius's celebrated geekiness carries a strong ethical component. It's right to use those smarts and wit for good causes -- advancing knowledge and having fun -- rather than for evil -- building weapons. This is a movie about why it's good to be smart, and about how much fun you can have when you're smart, and also about the responsibilities that come with being smart. Which, you have to admit, is a lot better than your average Hollywood movie, which tends to substitute either "attractive" or "muscle-bound" for "smart" in that previous sentence. On that note, I think it's also important to note that Real Genius is probably the movie that has best made the valiant claim that geeky is sexy, from Val Kilmer-as-walking-libido to Sherry Nugel's quest to bed the ten top minds in the nation to Jordan ("I'm 19 and hyperkinetic"), quite possibly the most appealing and oddly human character in movies for years around. I'm usually pretty scornful of talk of positive role models, but Real Genius provides plenty, but also makes me understand why having positive role models can be such a wonderfully motivating influence. I just wish I'd first seen it when I was younger.