Total Recall

Total Recall: Memorable Movie Nerds and Geeks

In honor of Comic-Con 2012, we run down some of cinema's greatest dorks, outcasts, brains, and obsessives.

by | July 12, 2012 | Comments

Nerds and Geeks

Nerds! Geeks! For years, they bore the brunt of hostility from all the cool kids — but now, in a turn of events that would have infuriated Fred “The Ogre” Palowakski, they are the cool kids, and this week they’re celebrating their ascendance with the ultimate annual pilgrimage of nerddom and geekitude. Yes, friends, we’re talking about Comic-Con, and in honor of the total geekout scheduled to take place in San Diego between tomorrow and Sunday, we decided to devote this week’s list to some of our favorite nerd- and geek-dedicated films. Hike up those floodwaters, Poindexter, because it’s time for Total Recall!

The 40 Year Old Virgin


Judd Apatow and Steve Carell co-wrote the script for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which gave Carell his long worked-for star-making role: action figure-collecting geek Andy Stitzer, whose quest to end his virginity sets up two hours of raunchy gags, Michael McDonald bashing, and inspired lunacy from Jane Lynch. $177 million in worldwide grosses later, Apatow and Carell were household names — and “Kelly Clarkson!” was an acceptable epithet — thanks in part to critical praise from writers like Paul Greenwood of Future Movies, who wrote, “It’s a joy to be in the hands of filmmakers who intuitively know the difference between rude and crude, who know that horny and heartfelt can exist in tandem and that jokes about race and sexuality are not the same as racism and homophobia.”

Ghost World


Perhaps you’ve noticed that when Hollywood wants to make a movie about nerds or geeks, they tend to focus on male characters. Not so Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, a bleakly funny adaptation of the Daniel Clowes comic book about a pair of teenage misfits (Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch) whose casually mean-spirited prank on a lonely middle-aged man (Steve Buscemi) has unforeseen consequences on their friendship. A cult and critical favorite, Ghost World resonated with scribes like Angie Errigo of Empire, who wrote, “This is ‘teen comedy’ of startling sophistication — with horribly funny bits as well. A true original, with sharp humour, subtle detail and painfully realistic characters.”



Boasting the tagline “Boot up or shut up! On line this fall,” posters for 1995’s Hackers promised slick, futuristic action — and, as is so dreadfully often the case, delivered a muddled assortment of computer culture cliches and plot points whose wild implausibility indicated a complete misunderstanding of the way technology works. However unlikely the events of the storyline, some critics enjoyed this tale of teen computer whizzes (led by Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie) and their battle against a swindling security expert (Fisher Stevens) — including Christopher Null of Filmcritic, who chuckled, “The real draw to Hackers is that it is so unexpectedly funny. Really funny. The comic scenes with the kids (and there are lots of them) are totally hilarious. The ‘serious’ scenes are too, because they are often so ridiculous.”

The Nutty Professor


With all due respect to Eddie Murphy’s very funny update, for this week’s list we have to give the nod to the original Nutty Professor, because nobody nerds out quite like Jerry Lewis in his 1960s prime. Acting out a revenge fantasy for spurned nerds everywhere while delivering a brilliant dual performance, Lewis starred as the brilliant-yet-socially-inept scientist Julius F. Kelp and his suave, chemically induced alter ego, Buddy Love — while also directing and co-writing the script. “Credit the effervescent Mr. Lewis for trying something different — a comical character study, with an edge of pathos,” urged A.H. Weiler of the New York Times. “The surprising, rather disturbing result is less of a showcase for a clown than the revelation (and not for the first time) of a superb actor.”



Combining elements of Old Testament mysticism, psychological thriller, and noir, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi marked his directorial debut with distinctive flair, plunging viewers into the intensely paranoid world of an unstable genius (Sean Gullette) whose fascination with numbers makes him the target of two shadowy groups — one that wants to manipulate the stock market, and one that wants to fulfill Biblical prophecy. Unlike any other film on this list (or any other film anywhere, really), Pi entranced critics like TIME’s Richard Corliss, who called Aronofsky “that rare indie filmmaker who doesn’t want to make hip romantic sitcoms. He’s a genuine experimenter with a spooky visual style.”

Real Genius


Starring a young Val Kilmer with a bleach job as impeccable as his comic timing, 1985’s Real Genius combined rapid-fire wisecracks with the rather poignant story of a socially maladjusted young freshman (Gabe Jarret) thrust into a high-pressure college environment, and added a dash of nuclear paranoia for good measure. A messy combination of ingredients? Sure, but for every bumpy tonal shift or Bryan Adams musical montage, Genius offers plenty of laughs — and it’s one of the rare 1980s films where everyone’s a nerd, and they’re ultimately all the better for it. Cheered James Brundage of Filmcritic, “Everyone plays their part in making this a very funny movie.”

Revenge of the Nerds


While far from the first film to celebrate the triumph of the social outcast, Revenge of the Nerds took things to a whole new level, injecting the geeks vs. jocks formula with a major dose of scatological humor and gratuitous nudity while arriving just in time for the personal computer revolution of the early 1980s. While it was greeted with predictable disdain by a good number of critics at the time (Lawrence Van Gelder of the New York Times grumbled that it “doesn’t do much for movies or nerds”), it resonated strongly enough to spawn a franchise — not to mention a real-life version of the fraternity the nerds use to upend college society in the film. And as far as most contemporary critics are concerned, it’s aged well; as 7M Pictures’ Kevin Carr put it, “It’s got everything for this kind of film — nudity, sex, swearing and dirty jokes.”



We couldn’t very well write about cinematic nerds without including Rushmore, the film that broke director Wes Anderson through to a larger audience, essentially redefined the quirky high school movie for a new generation, and reaped scores of awards and nominations for its trouble. Though it was never anything close to a box office hit — its gross stalled at just over $17 million, below its $20 million budget — Rushmore has grown into a certified cult classic. The movie rests on Jason Schwartzman’s shoulders, and a good deal of the critical acclaim rightly centered on his turn as the brilliant-but-troubled Max Fischer — but for a not-inconsiderable number of critics, Bill Murray’s performance as the dissatisfied executive who befriends, then spars with Schwartzman was a revelation. While lauding Schwartzman as “the best underdog since Cusack in Better Off Dead,” eFilmCritic’s Brian McKay saved his highest praise for Murray, deeming this “the finest, funniest, and most deadpan performance of his career.”

The Social Network


There isn’t a nerd on the planet who hasn’t tasted his share of peer-bestowed scorn — but there’s only one Mark Zuckerberg, the whip-smart programmer who turned a broken heart (and a dark, spitefully misogynistic night of the soul) into one of the most widely used websites on Earth. His story, in turn, was used as the basis for a bestselling nonfiction book — and then The Social Network, David Fincher’s Best Picture-nominated account of just how Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg) went from Harvard student to internet kingpin. Applauded Rick Groen of the Globe and Mail, “It has the staccato wit of a drawing-room comedy, the fatal flaw of a tragic romance and the buzzy immediacy of a front-page headline, all powered by a kinetic engine typically found in an action flick.”



The movie that forever changed the meaning of the phrase “how about a nice game of chess,” WarGames tried to capitalize on the early 1980s video game craze by spinning a far-fetched yarn about a teen hacker (Matthew Broderick) who worms his way into a NORAD computer and, thinking he’s playing a cool new game before it hits stores, ends up nearly triggering World War III. It’s the kind of bleep-and-bloop-assisted high-stakes drama that Hollywood’s been messing up since computers were invented, but in this case, it works — partly because the drama was amplified by our very real Cold War paranoia, and partly because of a terrific cast that also included Ally Sheedy, Dabney Coleman, and a young (but still quite crusty) Barry Corbin. Observed Roger Ebert, “As a premise for a thriller, this is a masterstroke.”

Weird Science


Ah, the 1980s — a time when computers were just starting to seep into everyday life, but still new enough that Hollywood screenwriters could get away with pretending your Apple II had magical powers. Case in point: Weird Science, the 1985 comedy that envisioned a world where a pair of high school misfits (played by Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith) use a PC (with the aid of a conveniently timed lightning strike) to create a real-life woman (Kelly LeBrock). Silliness ensues, including a narrowly averted nuclear crisis and Bill Paxton being turned into a troll, but in the end, everyone walks away happy — including Roger Ebert, who wrote, “Weird Science combines two great traditions in popular entertainment: Inflamed male teenage fantasies and Frankenstein’s monster.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out all of RT’s Comic Con 2012 coverage.


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