`Real Genius': an unexpected treat

It would be a pity if ``Real Genius'' were overlooked in the summertime blitz of teen-age comedies. On the surface, it's another throwaway farce about a shy adolescent learning the facts of life from his slightly older peers. But after a few scenes you can't help noticing its special qualities: the immaculate pacing, the subtlety of most performances, and the off-kilter wit of the screenplay, which relies more on situations and characterizations than on rapid-fire jokes and gags.

Also refreshing is the movie's attitude toward the supersmart kids it deals with. The best and brightest come in for plenty of ribbing, but it's always good-natured and tempered with respect for their abilities and achievements. At a time when most Hollywood comedies wave proud banners of stupidity, director Martha Coolidge and her scriptwriters have given us an unexpected treat, balancing slapstick and romance with sly verbal humor and touches of real poignancy.

The setting is Pacific Tech, a center for sophisticated research -- and home of a motley student population that turns its creativity to mischief when academic pressures get too strong, which happens all the time. The heroes are a 15-year-old prodigy with more IQ-power than emotional maturity, and an older boy whose reputation (one of the ``the 10 finest young minds'' in the country) is more than he cares to live up to.

Both are involved in a laser project run by a slick professor who's secretly in hock to the military-intellectual complex. Other characters include a whiz-kid with more energy than she can contain; an uptight toady, who antagonizes everyone he meets; and a burned-out genius, who lives in the steam tunnels under the dorm. The plot centers on the laser project, its hidden military connections, and the efforts of the ``real geniuses'' to find balance and contentment in their personal lives while meeting th e expectations that their special abilities call forth.

If the filmmakers poured all their time and energy into the far-fetched implications of this material -- the wacky experiments, say, or absurd ideas like a Marie Curie Lookalike Contest -- the result could have been a garden-variety farce. What lifts ``Real Genius'' above the crowd is its unfailing sense of control. Most of the key performers play their roles with visible conviction, treating their characters as real people rather than easy stereotypes, and director Coolidge backs them up through the sh arp timing and deft framing of almost every scene.

Although some episodes work better than others and the climax is sillier than it had to be, the picture's cool wit -- countered by warm pathos, on occasion -- stands above most recent stabs at adolescent comedy, including supposedly high-minded ones like ``The Breakfast Club'' and ``St. Elmo's Fire.'' Here's hoping the spate of superficially similar items on the current movie menu, from the dopey ``Weird Science'' to the dismal ``My Science Project,'' doesn't swamp ``Real Genius'' by overexposing the sm art-kid genre. This is one teen-movie that deserves to be noticed on its own considerable merits.

The film's rating is PG, reflecting occasional vulgarity.

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