Cinema Slap Fight: Real Genius vs. Better Off Dead

In which Hollywood favorites are made to fight to the death for your amusement.

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.

Quotability If there's anywhere Genius pulls away from Dead, it's here. I admit, Charles has some great lines ("I've been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I'm no dummy." "Do you know what the street value of this mountain is?!"), and this is good, too:

But 99 times out of 100, all anyone remembers is "I want my two dollars!", which is funny the first 500 times you hear it.

Neal Israel's script for Real Genius, on the other hand, is sublime:

"Do you mind if I name my first child after you? 'Dipshit Knight' has a nice ring to it."

"It's not intended for use in your kind of warfare, Roy. It's the perfect peacetime weapon. That's why it's secret." "So it's both immoral *and* unethical?" "Yes."

"Think before you ask these questions, Mitch. Twenty points higher than me? Thinks a big guy like that can wear his clothes?"

"Can you hammer a six-inch spike through a board with your penis? "...Not right now." "A girl's gotta have her standards."

"This? This is ice. This is what happens to water when it gets too cold. This? This is Kent. This is what happens to people when they get too sexually frustrated."

And that's not including Michelle Meyrink.

Esoterica: Better Off Dead has developed a greater cult following, it's true, owing both to Cusack's continued high visibility and its more traditional romantic plot structure. Real Genius' Cold War/SDI framework dates it a bit more harshly, and so does the fact that Chris is really the only conventionally likable character.

Though I will point out Cusack reportedly *hates* Better Off Dead, telling Holland he thought it was "horrible." Then again, this is the same guy who has no problem doing promotional appearances for 2012 and Must Love Dogs, so screw him.

Both soundtracks are delicious wheels of '80s cheese. Dead relied on Rupert Hine, who brought in his buddies from the Fixx to add to Howard Jones and Van Halen (though the Claymation burger scene set to "Everybody Wants Some" appears to be a dealbreaker for some people), while Genius brings Bryan Adams, Tears for Fears, Don Henley, and Y&T. I guess indie rock was late arriving at Pacific Tech.

But here's my biggest problem with Better Off Dead: Stalin clearly started the race at least five seconds behind Lane, yet at the end Lane beats him by a fraction of a second. If they'd truly "set the synchros" like they said, Lane still would've had to beat him by several seconds to win and become captain of the ski team. Inexcusable.

Real Genius, on the other hand, is eminently realistic.

The Champion: Real Genius - for quotability, for sheer volume and quality of assholes, and because John Cusack sounds like a real tool.

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