Cinema Slap Fight: Real Genius vs. Better Off Dead
It began, as most things do in my house, with an argument with my wife. The dispute was then taken to Facebook and, (unsurprisingly) finding no satisfaction there, I decided to bring the debate to that most venerable of arenas: the Houston Press blogs.
In what I hope to be the first in a series of throwdowns between selected pairings of movies, actors, soundtracks and whatever else I can come up with after a weekend of Netflix and Stone IPA, "Cinema Slap Fight" will pit two titans of '80s comedy - Real Genius and Better Off Dead - against each other using an arbitrary system of criteria I'm basically going to pull out of thin air.
In This Corner: Better Off Dead tells the story of Lane Meyer (John Cusack), a high school loser so devastated after getting dumped by his girlfriend he plans his suicide, unaware that the French exchange student across the street (Diane Franklin) wants to give him "language lessons."
You know, the "international language."
And In This Corner: In Real Genius, Mitch (Gabriel Jarret) is the youngest student at Pacific Tech, recruited to help create a powerful laser. His roommate/colleague Chris Knight (Val Kilmer) is often more hindrance than help, trying various schemes to get Mitch to loosen up before he turns into a steam tunnel-dwelling hermit like Lazlo Holyfeld (Jon Gries).
History: Dead scored better with critics than Genius (though both received two "thumbs down" from Siskel and Ebert), and arguably boasts a more impressive set of characters (but just barely). Cusack as Meyer was the perfect '80s Everyteen: cute - but not dreamy; funny, but not manic; and earnest without being mopey. Add to that Curtis "Booger" Armstrong as Charles De Mar, David Ogden Stiers as Lane's hapless dad, and the dreaded drag racing Rhee Brothers.
Of course, you also have Franklin sporting the worst French accent since 'Allo 'Allo.
The actors in Real Genius were largely unknown. This was Kilmer's first role since Top Secret!, and I defy anyone to name a movie Jarret's appeared in without looking at IMDb. Cusack and Kilmer would go on to fame and fortune in Hollywood (Kilmer less so), the others, not so much.
Dead director Savage Steve Holland would go on to direct One Crazy Summer, which also starred Cusack, moving on from there to teen TV programming. Martha Coolidge directed one other iconic '80s flick (1983's Valley Girl), before also taking a mostly television-centric career path.
Asshole Quotient: Aaron Dozier's Roy Stalin is a hell of a nemesis, though I can't decide if it's because Dozier himself is so annoying or I just find the fact he's named "Stalin" hilarious.
But he can't hold a candle to Real Genius' Dicktastic Duo: William "Dr. Hathaway" Atherton and Robert "Kent" Prescott. Both had already cemented their prick credentials (Atherton in Ghostbusters, Prescott in Bachelor Party), and both serve to make both Chris and Mitch's lives miserable at Pacific Tech. Kent achieves redemption, of a sort (God's admonition to "Stop playing with yourself."), but Dr. Hathaway will be spending the rest of his life picking popcorn out of his floorboards.