Val Kilmer plays Chris Knight, a genius student who is working on a project that he doesn't realise wants to make a laser usable in a sophisticated and dangerous weapon. Chris is tasked with taking young Mitch Taylor (Gabe Jarret) under his wing. He wants to help academically, but also wants to remind everyone to not take everything so seriously. Chris has seen how stress and obsession can affect people, and he wants to help people maintain a good balance. That doesn't always work for Professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) though. It also doesn't work for the prime douchebag, Kent (Robert Prescott).
Directed by Martha Coolidge, who has a filmography full of interesting movies that I have always been meaning to check out, Real Genius is an enjoyable '80s teen comedy that has the expected mix of fun characters, archetypes, and dialogue without the usual obsession over girls and nudity. You get some early moments with Val Kilmer wearing deely-boppers to highlight just how much he doesn't want to take life seriously, you get some pranks, and you get a final act that allows plot strands to be tied up, set-ups to be paid off, and the slightly serious stuff to be dealt with in a way that intertwines the humour with some serious stakes for those involved.
Writers Neal Israel, Pat Proft, and Peter Torokvei know what is expected, and they provide some standard moments and gags wrapped in the clothing of these onscreen geniuses. Whether it's the battle of wits between the new kid and the bully, the potential blossoming romance between a couple of main characters, or the strange loner who sees things that nobody else does . . . Real Genius entertains on a trope-filled, teen comedy level, yet adds a layer of smarts that allows it to stand out from the crowd.
Kilmer is a force to be reckoned with, superbly charming and charismatic. Although Jarret is playing the main character, and the way for viewers to meet this cast, it's Kilmer who is the lead. Jarret does well though, he's likeable enough and happy to let others around him shine. Atherton gives another one of his great turns, smiling at his students until things look to be no longer going his way, and Jon Gries is very amusing as the strange loner named Lazlo. Kent may be the character you're supposed to boo and hiss at, but Robert Prescott does well in that role. And then you have Michelle Meyrink, playing Jordan, a young woman with plenty of brains who lacks confidence in herself, and also lacks confidence in her social skills.
It's quirky and clever, but not too quirky and clever for its own good. Having seen this listed by many people over the years as a favourite comedy from this decade, I'm glad I finally checked it off the list. And even more glad that it was as good as many told me it was.