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Real Genius

The fourth of five in our 80s Comedy with Coolidge and Heckerling series, and the second film directed by Martha Coolidge we've discussed on the show. So much to love in this film! It's a film about smart people that feels genuine. Plus, there's lots of popcorn too...

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“Compared to you, most people have the IQ of a carrot.”

We’re Fans of Martha Coolidge’s 1985 Film Real Genius

The producer of Real Genius, Brian Grazer, approached director Martha Coolidge a number of times, trying to convince her to direct the film. From Coolidge’s perspective, the script just wasn’t there. It was a juvenile, teen male-oriented comedy and just wasn’t her thing. But Grazer wouldn’t give up. He wanted Coolidge as director for Real Genius so the two of them talked and he agreed to bring on another screenwriter, and also let Coolidge do some uncredited rewrites as well. Coolidge was able to get the script to feel like a story about real students at a real CalTech-adjacent school and kept it from being as straightforward juvenile comedy. The result is smart and fun. Join us – Pete Wright and Andy Nelson – as we continue our 80s Comedy with Coolidge & Heckerling series with Coolidge’s 1985 film Real Genius.

From Val Kilmer and William Atherton, to the nods to CalTech, to popcorn, here’s what we talk about in this episode about Real Genius.

We both watched the new doc Val about Val Kilmer’s life and recent battle with throat cancer. That put an interesting perspective on his performance here as Chris Knight, the goofball senior. To that point, we also have an opportunity to talk about how much we love his shirts throughout the movie.

William Atherton is a fantastic foil as Dr. Hathaway (much like in Die Hard!), the mean and manipulative professor and Robert Prescott is brilliant as the nerd villain. And as it turns out, Coolidge and company didn’t even realize how accurate they were being with how the government has manipulated students into working on weapons secretly for them.

Speaking of weapons, we talk about how accurate Coolidge fought to be in the script and why this film has influenced so many people to become scientists. And you know how they blow up Hathaway’s house with popcorn? They actually used 140 tons of popcorn for that scene. That’s a lot of popcorn! (I wonder if it was GMO…?)

Aside from Kilmer, we also have Gabriel Jarret, Michelle Meyrink (last discussed in Valley Girl), Jon Gries, Mark Kamiyama, Dean Devlin (last discussed as producer for Independence Day), and more as our students. They’re all great, particularly Meyrink as Jordan and Jarret as Mitch, but we sure would’ve loved more in-depth characters for some of our non-white males in the group. Regardless, it’s a fun group.

But who is the protagonist? Is it Mitch or is it Chris? It seems we’re following both. On a cursory level, it makes it a bit difficult to figure out who we’re supposed to be following. But what’s all this about having a separate main character and protagonist? How does that work and why would someone do it? Turns out, it’s fairly complex but works well here leaving Mitch as the main character and Chris as the protagonist.

What makes this film hold up so well though is the fact that Coolidge wanted to keep the science as real as possible and make school life feel accurate. From the lasers to the dorm graffiti to the party to the strange student living in the steam tunnels, it all feels real. This makes for such a great revisit after all these years.

So check out the movie then tune in to this week’s show. It’s a strong film that is ripe for discovery or re-discovery. The Next Reel – when the movie ends, our conversation begins!

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