Real Genius


Party on, nerds!

Party on, nerds!

(1985) Comedy (Tri-Star) Val Kilmer, Gabe Jarret, Michelle Meyrink, William Atherton, Jonathan Gries, Patti D’Arbanville, Stacy Peralta, Ed Lauter, Louis Giambalvo, Charles Shull, Robert Prescott, Mark Kamiyama, Tom Swerdlow, Randolph Dreyfuss, Dean Devlin, Yuji Okumoto, Deborah Foreman, Monte Landis, Paul Tulley, Joanne Baron, Charles Parks, Beau Billingslea. Directed by Martha Coolidge

I have to admit having a great deal of fondness for movies that came out in the 80s. I was in my 20s back then (ugh!) and although I was already skewing towards a demographic that movies weren’t serving quite so much, I was still close enough to it to relate.

The 80s were kind of a transitional period, moving away from the anti-heroes that were the rage in the 70s and more towards lighter, fluffier movies that started with Star Wars and continued as special effects began to become more sophisticated. It was also a great era for comedy as directors like the recently departed Harold Ramis, the late John Hughes and Ivan Reitman were all turning out classics like Ghostbusters, Sixteen Candles and Caddyshack.

One of the more underrated comedies of that era was Real Genius. Directed by Martha Coolidge who had previously helmed Valley Girl, the movie was somewhat akin to Revenge of the Nerds which had been released the previous year.

Mitch Taylor (Jarret) is a 15-year-old science prodigy who has been accepted into the physics program at Pacific Tech (a ringer for Cal Tech) headed by none other than television scientist and personality Dr. Jerry Hathaway (Atherton). Not only that, he’ll be rooming with Chris Knight (Kilmer), a legend in the honors student community who is now a senior at Pacific Tech.

However, Mitch finds that college isn’t exactly the way he thought it would be. The brilliant Knight is more interested in partying and playing elaborate practical jokes than he is in studying and preparing to become the next generation of scientists and engineers that will shape the future of our world. And, just like in high school, there are a group of bullies led by Kent (Prescott) who mercilessly badger and tease young Mitch. Kent it seems is insecure about his position with Dr. Hathaway and sees Mitch as a threat – and for good reason as it turns out as Dr. Hathaway puts Mitch in charge of finding a way to power a four megawatt laser, a project both Chris and Kent had previously been in charge of.

However, things aren’t all bad although the pressure on Mitch is spectacular. He meets Jordan (Meyrink), a hyperactive insomniac who is sweet on him – and vice versa. There is also a mysterious figure who lives in his closet, one Lazlo Hollyfeld (Gries) who was smarter than both Mitch and Chris but cracked when he found out the research that he was doing had been used for weapons.

The stress is growing to the breaking point for Mitch despite Chris’ admonition to blow off steam. The pressure is also growing on Dr. Hathaway, who had been given a grant to get results but was fobbing off the work on his students (who were working for free) and using the money to remodel his house. At last he tells Chris that the job waiting for him after he graduates will evaporate – in fact, he won’t graduate because Dr. Hathaway will fail him no matter what he does in class.

After a disastrous test melts down the laser (due to sabotage from Kent), Chris has an epiphany and gets the laser to work. However, when Lazlo wonders why they are celebrating, he asks them what the use of such a powerful laser would be and there is only one – as a weapon. Devastated, these brilliant students must find a way to make sure their research is never used – and at the same time, get even with those who betrayed them.

The humor here is more gentle and less raunchy than what we’re used to today, and there is a certain amount of sweetness, particularly in the relationship between Mitch and Jordan. Kilmer, who more often than not has been cast in dramatic roles in his career, was at that point a fine comic actor (remember Top Secret?) who had a bit of a quirky edge to him. He is really the center of the movie in many ways although the protagonist is ostensibly Mitch.

Jarret was a bit underwhelming as Mitch although I suspect that is as much by design as anything else. Mitch, as written, is a bit of a doormat so at times the character seems to be dragged about by whatever current is taking him. That makes it hard for an audience to get behind him and certainly to remember him. Easily it will be Meyrink and Kilmer who most will remember about this movie.

While the film is a bit dated in places (anything about technology will look dated 20 and 30 years on), the science is surprisingly sound (with the exception of the final prank which was recently debunked by Mythbusters). To this day, a laser as powerful as the one depicted here has yet to be invented although by the standards of the time the theory was apparently sound.

While this isn’t my favorite film or even my favorite comedy from the era, it remains one of those pleasures I’ve seen dozens of times and never get tired of. It doesn’t re-invent the wheel, Coolidge has a decent story to work with that she tells flawlessly and the performances are spot on. While some young whippersnappers have complained about the soundtrack, it is evocative of its times and any movie that spotlights Tears for Fears “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is okay in my book.

WHY RENT THIS: Light and fun, not to mention funny. Kilmer is a fine comic actor. The science is also surprisingly sound.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat dated in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  A few bad words, some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the scene where a procession of cars is arranged for a test firing of the laser, the cars are set up to mirror the motorcade of President Kennedy when he was assassinated.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.9M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Weird Science

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Lie

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The Extra Man


Kevin Kline wants you to know this is a PRIVATE phone conversation and listening in on your part is very rude.

Kevin Kline wants you to know this is a PRIVATE phone conversation and listening in on your part is very rude.

(2010) Romance (Magnolia) Kevin Kline, Paul Dano, John C. Reilly, Marian Seldes, Celia Weston, Patti D’Arbanville, Dan Hedaya, Jason Butler Harner, Alex Burns, Katie Holmes, Alicia Goranson, Lynn Cohen, John Pankow, Lewis Payton, Marisa Ryan, Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs, Jackie Hoffman, Justis Bolding, Beth Fowler, Victoria Barabas. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

The world needs extra men, men who radiate charm and elegance. Men who are gentlemen, refined raconteurs of taste and breeding. Men who escort wealthy old ladies to the opera and to art gallery openings with aplomb. Men like Henry Harrison (Kline).

Louis Ives (Dano) is a substitute teacher who is courtly and sweet-natured but likes to cross-dress when nobody’s looking. He comes to the Big Apple looking to make something of himself but can’t afford the sky-high rents for apartments in the city. He comes across a listing that Harrison has posted subletting his apartment and Louis, lacking much in the way of choice, takes it despite Harrison’s somewhat eccentric behavior.

Like Harrison himself, the apartment has seen better days and as Louis gets work in an office where he develops a shy romance with co-worker Mary (Holmes), Harrison is training Louis in the fine art of being an extra man. He also falls into the man’s orbit where his circle of quirky friends, including the shaggy Gershon Gruen (Reilly) speaks in an ear-shattering falsetto.

Like a lot of independent movies, The Extra Man places a heavy reliance on characters who are just a little bit out there – or in some cases here, a lot out there. If you watch a lot of indie films, you might get the idea the New York is bursting at the seams with oddballs and eccentrics, kooky sorts who are tolerated with warmth and affection and make the fruits and nuts of Southern California look positively Midwestern.

This is Kline’s movie although ostensibly Dano is the lead. It is Kline whose Henry will capture your imagination and attention from the first moment he steps onscreen until well after the closing credits have run. I have always had a great deal of affection for Kline in such movies as A Fish Called Wanda and The January Man and it has not diminished over time.

Dano is one of those actors who seem better served taking outside the mainstream roles. He’s at his best when his characters are just a bit off-beat. That is certainly the case here and he pounds out a solid performance that allows his natural charm and sweetness to show through. While he doesn’t quite distract enough attention from Kline (and honestly, there are few actors today who can hold their own with him) he certainly can point to this entry on his resume with pride.

I enjoyed this enough to recommend it although not effusively; this is a movie that will occupy your imagination for a short while but probably not too long before something else gets your attention. While I find myself cringing whenever I see a New York eccentric indie film, at least once the initial knee-jerk twitch passed I found myself consumed. You can’t ask much more of any film than that.

WHY RENT THIS: Kevin Kline. Oddball charm.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extra-high quirkiness quotient. Sometimes seems more like a series of scenes in search of a plot.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexual content and some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There is an HDNet feature on the film as well as a look at the animated voiceover trials and tribulations of becoming ducks.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $457,867 on a $7M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Gigolo

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Timeline

Morning Glory


Morning Glory

Diane Keaton is thrilled she still knows which one of them is Indiana Jones.

(2010) Comedy (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Rachel McAdams, Diane Keaton, Patrick Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Patti D’Arbanville, Ty Burell, John Pankow, J. Elaine Marcos, Matt Malloy, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Reed Birney, Linda Powell, Vanessa Aspillaga. Directed by Roger Michel

Anyone who has to get up in the morning to go to work has at one time or another watched at least a snippet of a TV morning show, like “Good Morning America” or the granddaddy of them all, the “Today Show.” Making this kind of shows work takes a special kind of animal.

Whereas some women dream of finding Mr. Right or of having children, Becky Fuller (McAdams) dreams of producing the “Today Show.” She’s well on her way to getting there too, as a talented and highly-regarded producer on a local morning show in New Jersey. It’s no surprise that rumors are swirling that she’s about to be promoted to executive producer.

Instead, she’s let go in a cost-cutting move. Devastated only for a moment, the terminally chipper and perky Becky rolls up her sleeves and gets to work finding herself a new job on a different show. She finally finds one – on the lowest rated morning show on the lowest rated network – “Daybreak” on IBS.

The show is in the dumper for a number of reasons; no imagination, no good ideas, no energy, no life. Becky is bound and determined to turn the show around, going so far as to fire the smarmy lothario of a co-anchor (Burell) on her first day. Colleen Peck (Keaton), the ex-beauty queen co-host is clearly skeptical of Becky’s abilities to get anything done, although she approves of her ouster of her former partner, but the situation remains – morning show co-hosts don’t just go on trees.

Then Becky gets the bright idea of hiring Mike Pomeroy (Ford), a legendary news anchor who makes Dan Rather look like Perez Hilton. Dour and described by his producer Adam Bennett (Wilson) as the “third-worst person in the world,” Pomeroy has no intention of taking on a position that he views as contributing to the demise of proper news reporting – until it becomes clear that if he doesn’t, he’ll forfeit his lucrative salary.

The addition of Pomeroy actually makes things worse initially. He has no intention of doing the job they want him to do, and he has right of first refusal to any story assigned to him. He comes off as dour, curmudgeonly and humorless which is not exactly what people are looking for in a morning show. The ratings are declining and Becky’s boss (Goldblum) soon tells her that if things don’t turn around immediately, the show is gone.

Her only respite is her romantic relationship with Adam that has blossomed since she arrived at IBS but even that is in jeopardy as she feels that she has to constantly apologize for doing her job which is far from a 9 to 5 affair. Can she rescue a show that is sinking in spite of her best efforts?

I think we all know the answer to that. This is a bit of unrepentant fluff that isn’t out to reinvent the wheel, and that’s okay. Director Michel, whose Notting Hill remains one of the better romantic comedies of the past decade, knows how to get the best out of his actors and so he does here.

McAdams has oodles of potential but hasn’t gotten the role that will put her over the top just yet, and she’s still waiting. She has a terrific smile, awesome personality and great screen presence. She carries this movie as surely as a Julia Roberts or Amy Adams would; she’s moving into that elite set of company.

As he’s gotten older, Ford has made a career out of playing grumpy men. Here he takes it to a new level, making Mike Pomeroy an absolute prick but one that has enough at his core that we can’t dismiss him summarily as simply a jerk. That complexity keeps the audience from being turned off by him as we might ordinarily.

Keaton is one of the finest comedic actresses of all time. This won’t go down as among her finest work but it is solid nonetheless. Colleen is prickly enough to have an edge but she’s a trooper for her show and as the one out on the firing line of a show that is perennially in last, it is easy to see that the stress has taken its toll.

This isn’t a movie that has a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, but consistently evokes grins and even a few guffaws. It’s the charm of McAdams and of the ensemble in general that keeps this from becoming too much like a stage farce which at times it feels like it’s about to degenerate into. Again, there’s nothing extraordinary or new here but if you are looking to feel better about life in general, this is the perfect tonic for the troops.

REASONS TO GO: The leads are all pros and tackle their parts nicely. Not really laugh out loud funny but charming enough to keep the audience invested.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit rote in places, and sometimes has the feel of a stage play farce.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of sexuality and some crude language here and there but otherwise suitable for teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was co-produced by veteran television producer J.J. Abrams (“Lost,” “Alias”).

HOME OR THEATER: There is nothing here that screams “big screen;” you’re probably not going to miss anything by seeing it at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Great Buck Howard