By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist March 21, 2013 at 3:59PM
Thanks to his offbeat Twitter feed and Harmony Korine collaborations (not to mention "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang"), Val Kilmer is finally breaking out of the self-serious, moody roles that made him an A-lister in the mid-90s, and nearly derailed his career in the process. But a move into comedy isn't so much a left turn as a return to the kind of movies that made his name, like 1984's "Top Secret," and more importantly for our purposes, 1985's college-set "Real Genius." Directed by "Valley Girl" helmer Martha Coolidge, and produced by a pre-Imagine Entertainment Brian Grazer, the film stars Kilmer as Chris, an offbeat slacker who also happens to be a physics genius. His corrupt professor (William Atherton) has recruited Chris and some of his other students -- fifteen-year-old Mitch (Gabriel Jarret), the broken Lazlo (Jon Gries) and hyperactive lady-nerd Jordan (Michelle Meyrink) -- to work on a laser while he uses the CIA paycheck to remodel his house. When they find out that it's intended for use as a weapon, they set out to sabotage their own project, and have fun while doing it. As college comedies go, "Real Genius" is one of the better ones; effortlessly funny (thanks to Kilmer's charismatic turn), well-researched in its science, and unexpectedly well-crafted (the score is from Thomas Newman, and the great Vilmos Zsigmond is the DoP). The film hardly reinvents the wheel, but as campus hi-jinks go, you could do an awful lot worse.
For the wrong social sect, college is even worse than high school in the hierarchy of the social strata, and can be even more painful and alienating. Especially if you're attending the fraternity-obsessed, football-dominant university, Adams College. A hilarious and yet surprisingly heartfelt look at outsiders, misfits, community and trying to find one's place in the universe (not to mention a striking look at persecution and maltreatment of the meek), "Revenge Of The Nerds," is not only one of the quintessential college movies, it's also a touchstone of the '80s. Starring Robert Carradine, Anthony Edwards, Tim Busfield, Ted McGinley, Bernie Casey and John Goodman among many others, this raunchy coming of age tale centers on a motley crew of poindexters who receive a rude awakening when they arrive in college and learn that no fraternity will accept them (the central fallacy being they all apparently had a wonderful high school experience, but it's easy to forgive). Ostracized and tormented by the jock fraternity Alpha Beta, and ignored by the comely blondes sorority, Pi Delta Pi, the nerds create their own safe haven with the fraternity Lambda Lambda Lambda. Their bright futures are tested though when the mean-spirited jocks burn their fraternity home down the nerds realize they must win control of the Greek Council by winning the annual intramural sports Greek Games during homecoming in order to set things right and achieve their own form of vengeance. Featuring one of the greatest original song musical sequences of all time - The Tri-Lamb Rap -- 'Nerds' has it all: Laughs, drama, stakes and heart, making a blueprint of unimpeachable comedy. It also boasts an incredibly undervalued soundtrack of ‘80s also-rans and uses music to fantastically comedic effect (see Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down The House” to name a few). If you don't shed tears at the triumphant finale scored with Queen's "We Are The Champions" you have a heart of coal. Extra pleasurable is the R-Rated humor which is very un-PC and juvenile, but hysterically vulgar and wrong. But do yourself a favor and skip all the sequels, as they possess no spark of what makes ‘Nerds’ so endearing and special.
Based on the true-life story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger (played by future hobbit Sean Astin), a plucky, perennially benched football enthusiast that attended University of Notre Dame and dreamed, one day, of actually playing football, "Rudy" has become shorthand for rousing sports movies of any shape. Somehow its meager beginnings (it was a sleeper hit but no smash, with a critical consensus of “okay, not great”) gave way to an even bigger legacy, with the film regularly cited as one of the greatest, most inspirational sports movies of all time. “Rudy” mixes authenticity (it was the first movie the Notre Dame higher-ups allowed to film on campus since “Knute Rockne, All American” in 1940) with sugary sentimentality, both of which are heavily augmented by Jerry Goldsmith’s unforgettably rousing score. In terms of college movies, “Rudy” perfectly captures that feeling of displacement that everyone, no matter how cool or rich or popular, feels for at least part of their collegiate experience (and Astin hits all the notes perfectly). Also, there’s a scene where Jon Favreau is incinerated in a mill explosion, which should fulfill the fantasy of countless moviegoers who had the misfortune of watching “Cowboys & Aliens.”
Roger Avary, for years overshadowed by writing partner Quentin Tarantino in the fallout from "Pulp Fiction," finally established his directorial credentials with this witty adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ campus novel. Receiving a decidedly mixed reaction upon release, its reputation has improved in the decade since, and Ellis himself has said that it comes the closest of all the adaptations of his work to accurately capturing the world he creates. It’s a glossy, sickly and decidedly tricksy affair, with reverse sequences, jumbled chronology, a jump-cut travel montage and a soundtrack that plays like a late '90s hipster mix tape. Much of the film’s hyperactivity may be attributable to Avary’s desire to prove himself as a talent in his own right, after allegedly getting shafted for the credit on "Pulp Fiction," but "Rules of Attraction" is a film that could easily be called "Generation X: The College Years," so it just about works. The intertwining trajectories of the three protagonists as they struggle to negotiate the druggy fish-bowl of Camden College form a kind of dark triptych of post-modern picaresques; each of them is miserable and frustrated in their own special way. James van der Beek plays totally against type as the nihilistic, coke-dealing Sean Bateman, with Shannyn Sossamon and Ian Somerhalder rounding out a solid ensemble cast (look out for a striking cameo from Fred Savage as a heroin-injecting recluse). Avary said he wanted to offer something that subverted the usual rules of the campus movie, and didn’t want “'American Pie' and 'Road Trip' to be the barometer by which a generation is judged”. If college is usually seen as a ribald, chaotic, but ultimately life-affirming place, then Camden College is just the opposite, irredeemably nasty in almost every way you can imagine. It’s populated by vapid narcissists and the strong prey constantly on the weak. In this world, even when people try to be nice they end up being cruel, and only the very worst come out ahead.
Almost the platonic ideal of cinematic second-album syndrome, Lee's big-studio coming-out party (he was snapped up by Columbia after the success of "She's Gotta Have It") is a messy, overstuffed, incredibly uneven film that falls well short of its enormous ambitions. Which is not to say to that it's not worth watching. Set at the mostly-black Mission College, it follows a number of students, including the politically engaged Dap (Laurence Fishburne, looking like the world's oldest college student; he was only 27 when the film was made, but still looks older), his cousin Half-Pint (Lee himself), who's pledging into the Gamma Phi Gamma Fraternity, and Julian (Giancarlo Esposito), the head of the fraternity. And against this canvas, Lee tackles a whole host of issues: the African-American middle-class, sexual politics, the battle against apartheid, the frat system and, most of all, the clash in African-American culture between, as the film puts it, Wannabees (those trying to fit into white culture) and Jiggaboos (who are prouder of their own heritage). Given that it tries to deal with all of this and more, while essentially using the form of both a college movie and a full-blown musical, it's not entirely surprising that the film doesn't quite work: the performances are too inconsistent, the ideas not quite fully developed. But it's much more interesting to watch an ambitious failure than an unambitious success, and compared to the vast majority of college movies, Lee's second joint is a feast, even if his filmmaking skills had yet to catch up with his imagination.