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Battle of the Nerds: Real Genius vs. Weird Science

on August 12, 2015, 9:00am

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Art is subjective. Music and movies aren’t about competition; they’re about artistic expression. Well, for those of you who know better than to believe those lies, welcome to another installment of Versus. This time, Film Editors Justin Gerber and Dominick Suzanne-Mayer discuss which pair of nerds should forever rule 1985, Chris and Mitch or Gary and Wyatt. 

Justin Gerber (JG): I have fond memories of watching both John Hughes’ Weird Science and Martha Coolidge’s Real Genius on TV in the late ‘80s. I was too young to experience either in the theaters, but thanks to basic cable, they were seemingly available to me during any given weekend. I recall Weird playing on TBS all the time, sometimes USA in order to highlight its TV-adaptation in the ‘90s. For Real, it was a heavily edited version on the Disney Channel of all places. In this version, it wasn’t “Jesus” commanding Kent; it was “God.” Why they felt it was blasphemous to use the alleged son of God but not said son’s father is beyond me. That’s also one helluva sentence.

I love both of these movies, but as I’ve grown older, I find Real Genius to be the superior film. It doesn’t have the hit single bearing the name of its title, it isn’t a John Hughes joint, it doesn’t have young Anthony Michael Hall’s hilarious (yes, hilarious) interpretation of a middle-aged Blues enthusiast, and it doesn’t have Kelly LeBrock (hey now!). However, what it lacks in name recognition, it makes up for in its characters, big and small. Dom, before I defend my choice, tell me about your feelings towards these films. Remember, whoever wins this argument is right. I hope our readers understand.

Dominick Suzanne-Mayer (DS): Let’s be perfectly candid before we get too deep into the nitty-gritty of the relative merits of a pair of ’80s movies that weren’t exactly critical darlings at the time of their releases. This is a discussion steeped thoroughly in nostalgia. It is! And that’s okay. Justin, within the first paragraph of this discussion, you’ve already invoked television as a memory associated with these films, and as I’m sure we’re going to talk about, they are both very much relics of their time in that regard. Their longevity can be attributed as much to their midday ubiquity in the ’90s and beyond as anything, and for a pop-cultural omnivore of a certain age, it’s a mild touchstone. Weird Science’s television adaptation of same name, for instance, only adds to the nostalgia factor on this end. It was a recurrent presence in both comic books and televised professional wrestling of the time.

On relative merits, Real Genius has the fond onetime memories of sick days and Comedy Central at 2 p.m. on its side. There’s also the already-established charisma of a young Val Kilmer, an actor who’s always had a strangely undeniable appeal in even the most questionable roles. And the film very much functions within the “fresh-faced overachiever befriends slacker, and both wear leisure suits as a result” tropes of the time that comic filmmakers started taking into ever stranger directions after a while.

Weird Science holds an even fonder place in my heart, because I grew up in a home fond of the film, and as such, from a young age, my mom would often inform me that I was indeed “stewed, buttwad.” Really, the entirety of Bill Paxton’s performance as Chet was part of the vernacular of the household, so I may as well be frank about that bit of inherent bias early on. But regardless, I’ll kick off the discussion by saying that I prefer Hughes’ entry of the two; it’s by far the most truly anarchic thing he ever did, and while time has been unkind to some of its bits, the visual of Paxton as a sentient pile of feces is one of those things that demands a guttural cackle from even the most cynical of hearts. Where do you stand?

JG: It’s crazy to think that Hughes wrote Weird in between The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, but I digress. The appeal of Real now just as it was then is thanks to a performance you mentioned above. Val Kilmer was still a fresh-faced newbie, not yet Iceman or Madmartigan. His character of Chris Knight was someone we hadn’t really seen before: a cool nerd. Despite the combined brainpower of Weird’s two leads, they weren’t really cool. My childhood memories of Cool Chris aside, adult-me still believes that Kilmer is near his peak in the role. He’s technically a supporting character to Gabe Jarret’s Mitch, but he steals the whole movie. “Duck! Duck again!” “I was thinking of the immortal words of Socrates, who said, ‘I drank what?’” “Absolutely.” I could go on and on, but of all the performances in both Weird and Real, Kilmer blows everyone away.

The villains of the movie are top-notch, as well. I’ll take William “Walter Peck” Atherton and the dude who played the bully in Bachelor Party over Robert Downey Jr. and the dude who played the bully who became a friend in Freddy’s Revenge any day of the week. Weird’s tributes to The Road Warrior and The Hills Have Eyes are fun, though. Was there a better go-to smarmy villain than Atherton in the eighties? Ghostbusters, Real Genius, Die Hard. I can’t believe he got his break playing the protagonist in Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express.

DS: To return to a matter close to my own heart, Bill Paxton, his Chet is one of the great shitheel villains in a decade where the teen movies were full of them. One of the great and most frequently lauded things about Hughes is how there’s a care and sincerity to his films that so many teen movies of his time didn’t really have. Hughes was no less bawdy, in his way, but he took care to consider the first mall generation as people, however young. All of this is to say that Weird Science, as previously mentioned, is one of the nastier pieces of work he ever turned out in certain respects, even if the central relationship between Wyatt and Gary fits nicely with his other films.

Particularly with Chet, but really starting from the film’s humiliating opening moments involving an especially smarmy Robert Downey Jr., Weird Science is for the most part able to channel the vicious world of a bullied teenager as well as Hughes has ever done it. Gary and Wyatt’s world is full of repression and daily, invasive humiliations. So basically, it’s about being a teenager, in so many words. But there’s a real cruelty to that opening scene and some of the others throughout (the conversation Wyatt’s parents have with LeBrock is a lovely bit of escalating cringe comedy), a deft handle on just how much it really does suck to be at the part of your life where your needs don’t yet align with the personal autonomy it usually takes to remedy them.

It’s also just a deeply, deeply strange movie. Hughes is no stranger to a film played out in detail over a relatively short timeframe, but the party scene that ends the film hits points of excess that not even Sixteen Candles dared, and with considerably less uncomfortable racism. It’s definitely one of Hughes’ less cohesive movies, more a series of offbeat vignettes than a wholly assembled work at times, but it’s also among the more outrageously funny. Even if the central conceit around it feels uncomfortable today in a way it likely didn’t 30 years ago.

JG: Looking back as an adult, there is obvious objectifying of Lisa. However, she is invented by two inexperienced, nerdy, teenage boys who don’t know any better. To boot, in the end, she’s the smartest person in the film, teaching the boys a thing or two about life and love before venturing on to a new destination. LeBrock surpasses the bar set for most centerfold models in ’80s movies. I have lost my way! I want to talk about Lazlo Hollyfeld, played by Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Gries. Lazlo lives in a secret lair only accessible through a student’s closet in a college dormitory. He’s a legend come to life — an outcast in a movie stockpiled with them. That’s another interesting aspect about Real Genius. Normally your outcasts are the protagonists and the in-crows play the bullies. Here we have a bully who is also a nerd. Kent wears thick glasses, has braces, dresses poorly, but he’s the terrorizer. Atherton’s Professor Hathaway is a scheming asshole with dangerous plans, but he’s cut from the same cloth as Chris, only without the obvious sense of humor. Dom, Real Genius taught me a valuable life lesson: Just because I’m a nerd doesn’t mean I don’t have the power to tear down those around me. What lessons did you learn from Weird Science, sir?

DS: The chief lesson for me was that, whether or not Anthony Michael Hall can pull off an impression of a middle-aged blues man, there is no way that I should ever try doing it. As a little kid, I didn’t yet have that kind of perspective. But that’s neither here nor there. Assembling this discussion was an interesting exercise, because Weird Science is definitely one of those movies that has to at least give you pause later in life, kind of like how I grew up watching the cable version of Bing Crosby’s Holiday Inn and thus missed out on the straight-up minstrelsy that time has mostly excised from it. Science isn’t nearly so crass, but on a basic level, it’s a movie about two horny, young dudes building a supermodel with the intentions of total sexual compliance. For lack of better phrasing, it’s creepy.

But at the same time, there’s a kindness of intention to it, along with Hughes’ signature canny understanding of how truly dumb teenagers are even as he celebrates them and elevates their stories, that makes the movie work a lot more often than it doesn’t. And while it’s easy to understand why the film was met with scorn both then and sometimes now, it’s ultimately a story about a woman who’s so far out of two teenage boys’ league that they realize how ill-functioning they are as people because of what they created her to be in the first place. It’s hardly as insightful as, say, Ruby Sparks, a modern film with an uncannily similar plot outline, but Hughes’ clear aim is to suggest that if you don’t love and respect yourself, you’re never going to be able to offer those things to anybody else. Not a bad message for a movie that also concerns a giant pile of feces.

JG: What have we learned here today? Both Real Genius and Weird Science are solid films — not classics, but definitely staples of the era in which they were produced and released. Which is better? I’m sticking with Real, and you can look no further than the re-worked lyrics of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” that Tears for Fears wrote specifically for the movie. While the original version of the song plays during the climax (popcorn at Dr. Hathaway’s) and end credits, it’s a shame they didn’t use the updated version. Here are those lyrics: “Here’s Real Genius and Weird Science. Real Genius is a bit better Everybody wants to rule the world.”

DS: I really do agree that while neither film could be called a “classic” in the traditional mold, they’ve lingered. And even if it’s as much because of the brief, beautiful analog age of film viewing, they’ve stood the test of time in a way that so many other outrageous comedies of the time have never quite found. And Justin, these new and updated lyrics? “These are the things I could do without. Come on. I’m talking to you. Come on.”