Monday, June 04, 2012

Revenge of the Nerds

REVENGE OF THE NERDS (Jeff Kanew, 1984)

The eternal war between the athletically and academically inclined rages on in REVENGE OF THE NERDS with jocks asserting their superiority until the brainiacs fight back.  The unlikely leaders in this turn of events are entering freshmen Lewis Skolnick (Robert Carradine) and Gilbert Lowell (Anthony Edwards), best friends who are eager to get started at Adams College.  The school’s computer science program is among the best in the nation, and the female-to-male enrollment ratio holds the promise that they might engage in some extracurricular studying of anatomy as well.

Lewis and Gilbert’s initial enthusiasm is doused when the upperclassmen of Alpha Beta accidentally burn their own house to the ground and claim the freshmen dormitory as their new home.  The administration addresses the problem by allowing homeless new students to join fraternities and move into Greek housing.  Unfortunately Lewis, Gilbert, and a handful of other social outcasts--violinist Arnold Poindexter (Timothy Busfield); nose-picking, self-declared rebel Dudley “Booger” Dawson (Curtis Armstrong); openly gay Lamar Latrell (Larry B. Scott); Japanese student Toshiro Takashi (Brian Tochi); and twelve-year-old Harold Wormser (Andrew Cassesse)-- fail to be accepted anywhere and must continue to be lodged in half of the gymnasium.  

Lewis’s relentless optimism and resourcefulness leads them to a battered house available for rent.  They tidy it up, and all seems well except they continue to be harassed.  Campus security and the Greek Council, led by one of their main Alpha Beta tormentors Stan Gable (Ted McGinley), refuse to intervene since they are not an officially recognized group.   

Using a close reading of a historically African-American fraternity’s bylaws, they secure probationary approval to become a chapter of Lambda Lambda Lambda, although it remains to be seen if they’ll muster the support to make it permanent.  Finally, it looks like they’ve found their niche, but the Alpha Betas and women of Pi Delta Pi humiliate them yet again.  Enough is enough.  The nerds must have revenge.

REVENGE OF THE NERDS has some laughs at the expense of its awkward heroes but typically holds them in high regard, especially in comparison to the brutes and snobs who pick on them.  While the film trots out some unflattering stereotypes--Lamar is a floppy-wristed queen, and Toshiro substitutes his l’s and r’s--the tone is not exactly mean-spirited.  The fellow nerds accept one another unconditionally regardless of what makes each of them social pariahs.  For example, Lamar’s friends develop a javelin that compensates for his limp wrists.  The redesigned equipment lets him excel in one of the Greek homecoming games essential to the Tri-Lambdas survival.  This hardly qualifies Lamar as an enlightened or respectful portrayal of a homosexual, yet overall the film doesn’t make him a target of derision.  It’s not a lot, but it’ll do in this context.

Surprisingly, the nerds perpetuate a nasty streak of behavior toward women that violates the film’s general live-and-let-live attitude, and it stains what is otherwise intended as raunchy but lighthearted fun.  Revenge on Pi Delta Pi comes in the guise of a panty raid that distracts from the nerds rigging the sorority’s bathrooms with multiple cameras that transmit live feeds back to the Tri-Lambs.  Even allowing that a film such as REVENGE OF THE NERDS exists for a little titillation, the scenes of the Lambda Lambda Lambda guys sitting in their living room watching for hours as the women undress and bathe are very tawdry.  From the leering comments they make to the pornographic-like presentation of the nude women, the cruelness underlying these moments exceeds causing mere embarrassment over being seen naked.  In fact, most of the women are unaware they’ve had their privacy invaded.

That’s not the worst of it.  Lewis fixates on head Pi, and Stan’s girlfriend, Betty Childs (Julie Montgomery) and deceives her into having sex with him when she believes he’s her boyfriend.  A point of view shot behind his mask reads more like a horror film stalker sizing up his prey even though it’s intended to play up the supposed hilarity of the situation.  Rather than being horrified upon discovering what has transpired between them (or to her), Betty praises Lewis’s lovemaking skills.  Never mind that as this is going on his brothers are doing brisk business at a booth selling whipped cream pies on plates bearing a topless photograph of her.  Incredibly, Betty tosses aside her brawny lad for some geek love in the end.  REVENGE OF THE NERDS laughs off these shenanigans as boys just being boys, but it’s far too creepy to be considered amusing in the least.

Setting aside the unsavory elements, REVENGE OF THE NERDS is dumb entertainment executed in mediocre fashion.  Rather than getting familiar with the seven nerd protagonists, none of whom are drawn beyond caricatures, the narrative keeps an intense focus on the predestined outcome in the competition between Alphas and Lambdas.  The lone bright spot in their battle for control of the Greek Council features the nerds offering a rare display of ingenuity as they impress with their musical talents. The rest of the time it’s a series of tame, thinly conceived gags.  The belching contest, seemingly a centerpoint for a film like this, is comprised of two combatants letting it rip once each.  How far mainstream Hollywood movies have come since 1984.

Grade: C-

(Side note:  Although not of any consequence to the film, keep an eye out for John Goodman, in one of his first movie roles, as the football coach and James Cromwell, billed as Jamie, as Lewis’s equally nerdy dad.)

1 comment: