Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Revenge of the Nerds (1984)


The Movie: Lewis (Robert Carradine) and Gilbert (Anthony Edwards), two lifelong best friends, are excited about starting their first year at Adams College. After all the misery of high school, they are determined to shed their image as nerds, start a new life, and be successful with women. Unfortunately, their freshmen year at Adams is going to put them right back where they started.

Adams College is dominated by the Alpha Betas, your typical band of uberjock bullies, and their coach, Harris (John Goodman). Our heroes’ first major problem with the Alphas comes when they burn down their frat house at a party and take over the freshmen dorm. The new male freshmen are forced to live in the gym. Dean Ulich (David Wohl) arranges so that the freshmen are allowed to join fraternities that year, but there are still a sizable number of individuals that the frats find undesirable.

With nobody else to turn to, the “nerds” band together and find a house of their own, which they fix up. Unfortunately, the Alphas consider them easy prey and persecute them mercilessly. What’s worse, the nerds are told that their only recourse to justice is the Greek Council; and its president is Stan Gable (Ted McGinley), one of the Alphas. Because the nerds are not part of the fraternity system, they have no power.

In desperation, the nerds manage to convince a national fraternity, Lambda Lambda Lambda, to sponsor them as their campus’ chapter. They then seek to get the reins of power away from the Alphas. However, the jocks are determined that there is no way they are going to be beaten by a bunch of nerds. They are determined to stomp the nerds down by any means available; and things are about to get really ugly…

The Review: I was not expecting much from this movie. I had heard the title Revenge of the Nerds for years; maybe decades would be more accurate. As the television in the deli section of my college’s cafeteria was usually turned to Comedy Central, I even caught a few brief glimpses of it. But, I just expected it to be another raunchy, juvenile Animal House wannabe. When I got Netflix I started adding titles to various movies that, while well known in popular culture, I had never seen. Eventually, Revenge of the Nerds came up on my queue and arrived in my mailbox.

I found myself doing something I rarely do with my Netflix movies; instead of just watching it once and sending it back, I held on to Revenge of the Nerds until I was able to rewatch it. Seriously, I enjoyed it that much. While there was raunchy and juvenile humor; there was also a very good cast, a good plot, a genuine sweetness that was nothing like the Hallmark kind you usually see, and the sense that everyone involved was enjoying themselves.

One of the things this movie does differently from usual is its presentation of its heroes. In most movies you have one or two identification figures; in Revenge of the Nerds you have a small stable of them. There’s Poindexter (Timothy Busfield), a violin player who has the classical nerd look. Wormser (Andrew Cassese) is a twelve-year old genius whose parents force him to move to college. “Booger” (Curtis Armstrong, who played John Cusack’s druggie friend in Better Off Dead) is both skuzzy and shifty. Takashi Toshiro (Brian Tochi) is your stereotype ignorant and na├»ve Japanese exchange student. Then there’s Lamar Latrell (Larry B. Scott), who has two strikes against him; he’s black and he’s flamboyantly gay.

That’s a lot of characters to keep track of, but Revenge of the Nerds pulls it off by playing off the group dynamics. Lewis and Gilbert are our official point of view characters, and Gilbert inadvertently winds up the unofficial leader of the group, but for the most part the movie focuses on all of them about equally. What’s more, despite the stereotypes, they all come across as human. In the cast reminiscing feature on the disc, they talk about how the director met with each of them and had them flesh out their characters (Armstrong had a full character bio written up), and it really shows. Even if they didn’t use every detail, you get the impression of fully fleshed out human beings, not caricatures.

One of the things that really struck me about this movie was how human all of the heroes actually looked. Few, if any, of them are truly Hollywood Pretty. Gilbert’s girlfriend Judy (Michelle Meyrink) is, of course, a nerd, but she is also very pretty; although it’s a kind of frizzy, wallflower pretty, not the “take off her glasses and she’s a supermodel” tack that Hollywood so loves. Likewise, when I got my first look at her sorority, the Omega Mus; it was clear that none of these women would be a starlet or supermodel, but I saw several who I would be attracted to if I met them in person. This use of ordinary people helps cement the believability of the characters; they are people we can expect to run into on the street, or even see in the mirror. The truly “Beautiful People” in this movie are almost all the villains.

The villains are more caricatures, but they still work. If nothing else, they’re fun and you truly love to hate them. The two standouts are “Ogre” (Donald Gibb), who could almost be the mythical creature that inspired his nickname, and Stan, their leader. In the special feature, McGinley turns out to be one of the few cast members who initially wanted to be in Revenge of the Nerds. He also makes the observation that if you’re not going to win the girl, you should at least get to be the villain “and I got a little of both.” That mindset truly shows in his character, he was the perfect villain. Ogre, meanwhile, provides both comedy relief and a credible threat to the heroes.

‘Underdog beating the odds’ movies are a dime a dozen (probably because we all love them), but Revenge of the Nerds does a few more things right that separates it from the pack. The initial power system at Adams College, for one is very clever. Dean Ulich, it’s made clear, is a nerd himself and always on the heroes’ side. His problem is that, like them, being beaten down his whole life makes it very hard for him to stand up for himself. As a result, even though he’s officially in charge, Coach Harris is able to dominate him and therefore control the school. However, with each victory our heroes win, the dean is provided with more inspiration and strength until he’s finally able to stand up to the coach.

How the heroes gain their own fraternity is also well done. Initially, their motivation for forming their own fraternity is survival; if the boys are going to have any power on campus they need to be part of the system. Told they need a national fraternity to sponsor them, they only get a favorable response from the one fraternity they didn’t send a group picture to, Triple Lambda.

Lambda Lambda Lambda it turns out, not insignificantly, is an all black fraternity. U.N. Jefferson (Bernie Casey), the head of Triple Lambda, is ready to disregard our heroes, too, once he sees them; but the by-laws say that all petitioners get a 60 day probationary membership. Reluctantly, Jefferson grants them probationary membership, and agrees to attend a party they throw in his honor.

The party starts out badly, first from a sabotage attempt by the Pi Delta Pis, the sorority the Alphas associate with, and later just general awkwardness. However, through some determination and ingenuity the nerds finally start the right note, and even the Lambda reps are visibly trying hard not to show they’re having a good time. Then the jocks ruin the party. The nerds are convinced that their chances are ruined, but the expression on Jefferson’s face tells a different story. It’s clear that this is what finally convinces him to accept them; seeing first-hand what they are up against and why they need a fraternity of their own. Judging by his race and age, he probably had to go through the same crap himself.

Another intriguing part of the movie comes from this. Along with Jefferson’s official recognition of our heroes as Lambdas, he takes a personnel interest in them. Also, although they never really think about this until it’s sprung on them; the full Tri-Lambda organization considers the boys theirs. The upshot of these two things is that the nerds have inadvertently made themselves some powerful allies with an interest in their welfare.

The final aspect of Revenge of the Nerds that I really like is how the nerds take on the jocks. In most underdog vs. the odds movies it ends with the underdog literally beating his opponents at their own game. However, from the very beginning of the movie, this is shown to be blatantly impossible. The heroes are so overmatched by their enemies that any attempt to play by their rules will get them trounced.

The conclusion to this is that the nerds don’t try to play by the jock’s rules. Instead, when they do go after the jocks, they employ tactics where they have the advantage. Admittedly, in this day and age the nerds’ retaliation on the Pi’s ruining their party, a simultaneous panty-raid and the planting of video cameras in their house, doesn’t go down well with me. I’m not too bothered by their retaliation on the Alphas though, putting liquid heat in their jock straps. I wonder what that says about me.

But that’s how they win, by using their ingenuity. At the Greek Games, which is what determines the presidency of the Greek Council, the nerds win by approaching the events in ways the jocks would never think of. I particularly like how they handle the charity event. And, even when in events where they’re clearly outmatched, such as the tug-of-war, the nerds figure out how to lose in ways that still get the best of their opponents.

So, in short, I really liked this movie. It taps into a theme that appeals to all of us, turning the tables on your persecutors; but does it in a way that’s more believable than what we usually see. What’s more, this movie does clearly identify with its protagonists. While in other movies many of the misfortunes they go through here would be played for laughs; here they are shown for the tragedies they are. Our heroes are played for humor, of course, but it’s the age-old difference of laughing with, not at. Finally, the heroes are very identifiable. If you haven’t seen Revenge of the Nerds, you should remedy that.

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