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Val Kilmer’s ‘Real Genius’ Reveals Itself Within his Comedies

In ‘Real Genius,’ Val Kilmer controls the jokes, every character, and the tangibly vibrant joy that rises from every frame.
Real Genius Val Kilmer
TriStar Pictures
By  · Published on September 15th, 2016

Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores how Val Kilmer leads the charge in ‘Real Genius.’

We knew from the very beginning where Val Kilmer belonged.

His feature debut as the lead in 1984’s Top Secret!, an under-appreciated spoof eternally lost in the shadow of Airplane!, revealed a charismatic comedian already capable of dry delivery and ridiculous wit. Jump forward two decades to 2005 and he’s front and center alongside Robert Downey Jr. in one of the absolute best comedies of the past fifteen years, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Between those two comic gems though you’d be hard-pressed to find Val Kilmer as the lead in another comedy – with only one exception. Thirty-two movies separate them, but some small supporting appearances aside the only other full-on comedy Val Kilmer headlined was his second feature film, Martha Coolidge’s witty and warm Real Genius.

Kilmer plays Chris Knight, a young genius who burned out in his junior year of college and is now coasting toward graduation as a brilliant goofball without a serious bone in his body. The teacher who originally recruited him, Prof. Jerry Hathaway (the eternally, fantastically dickish William Atherton), brings in a younger, fresher, and far more serious mind in Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret) to help work on the prof’s pet project involving lasers. Rather than take offense or inspiration from the new talent, Chris takes it upon himself to help liberate young Mitch from the yoke of academia and expectation.

Val Kilmer in Real Genius teaches the fifteen-year-old to relax and have fun, but rather than go the Van Wilder / P.C.U. route of expressing slacker mentality at the expense of all else the film makes a point of embracing intelligence and fun equally. There’s a time and a place for both, he argues – as well as a walking cautionary tale living in their closet in the form of past student genius Lazlo Hollyfeld (Jon Gries) – and together they find the perfect balance between working on Hathaway’s laser and hosting a tropical-themed swim party with student beauticians.

The prof – under pressure from the government agency he’s actually building the laser for – catches wind of his slave labor students’ shenanigans and cracks down on the good times. Backed into a corner, Chris and Mitch finish the project only to see their celebration squashed when Lazlo suggests they may have just built a weapon for the military. A brief panic is followed by a group huddle of young geniuses including Mitch’s beautifully idiosyncratic crush Jordan (Michelle Meyrink) and friend Ick Ikagami (Mark Kamiyama), and their revenge is set in motion.

Coolidge, an accomplished and talented director seemingly banished to television for the past decade, gives the film a bright, colorful, pop appeal that keeps things lively while also playing into its quintessential ’80s-ness. It pairs well with a script (by Neal Israel, Pat Proft, and PJ Torokvel) that never sleeps in its near-endless parade of one-liners, witticisms, and asides.

It’s a damn funny and highly quotable movie, and it’s an environment in which Kilmer excels. He’s equally at home wooing an army general’s daughter (the smile-inducing Deborah Foreman, whose too-limited time here is the film’s only fault) as he is slicing liquid nitrogen wafers or riffing about kilojoules, and his rapid-fire delivery comes with the confidence of someone well beyond their second feature film.

The laughs keep things moving, but there’s lasting weight in a pro-science / anti-authoritarian comedy that celebrates smarts. Dorm-life here is as unruly as you’d find in Animal House, but while these kids have sex drives their antics are driven by organs a few feet above their genitals. Guys and girls alike are a allowed to be funny, smart, and confident in their own skin with Jordan in particular being an energetic and entertaining standout. Meyrink crafts Jordan as someone who’s feminine without being defined by her sexuality and odd without feeling uncomfortable, and it’s a terrific performance for what could have been a one-note character. She may have bowed out of movies by the end of the decade of her own accord, but odds are Meyrink’s yet another in a long line of talented women failed by the Hollywood machine.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give an extra shout-out to Atherton too. The man is a special brand of genius and arguably as important an element to the likes of Real Genius, Die Hard, and Ghostbusters as any other player. He’s as pro-science here as the other characters and even hosts a science show called Everything, but like Neil deGrasse Tyson he uses his intelligence for nefarious purposes. “You’re laborers,” he says over a metaphorically upturned nose to the men doing work on his house, “you’re supposed to be laboring. That’s what you get for not having an education.”

The word “delightful” seems ill-fitting (and perhaps off-putting) to describe a film in an attempt to garner it more viewers, but Real Genius is just that. It’s the kind of movie you watch with a smile on your face in reaction to the jokes, the characters, and the tangibly vibrant joy rising from every frame. Val Kilmer has had a long career filled with fine and not-so fine films (and a back half that saw him in more direct-to-DVD titles than theatrical ones), but among the regrets he’s mentioned regarding his ego and bad behavior I wonder if he also wishes he made time for more comedies. Or maybe it’s just me?

“Is it the dream where you see yourself standing in sort of sun-god robes on a pyramid with a thousand naked women screaming and throwing little pickles at you?”

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.