Nostalgia can be a tricky thing. Case in point: looking forward to re-experiencing a film you haven’t seen in twenty-five years, only to realize in one ghastly moment why you took a quarter century to get around to it again. Revenge of the Nerds is exactly that beast: the kind of movie you saw on video when it was still forbidden fruit and loved it, only to find it much uglier with the rose-colored glasses removed.
The most surprising thing is how they manage to screw up such an easy win. Take the Animal House formula of dueling fraternities and apply it to the eternal jocks vs. brains schism. Watch the nerds get hassled for the first hour, then turn their mighty minds towards balancing the scales. Add some clever gags and few fart jokes, and you can pretty much set it on auto-pilot. Revenge of the Nerds should be able to handle such a simple task, only to bungle it amid utter laziness, bad timing and shockingly casual racism and misogyny.
That last part comes about as a product of the times – we really were barbarians in 1984 – though Revenge is a particularly egregious example. Even setting aside the presence of a mincing black homosexual (Larry B. Scott) and an Asian man-child (Brian Tochi) who approaches WWII propaganda levels of offensiveness, there’s still the sexism. Sweet Jesus, the sexism. I understand that times change and we can’t hold a single film responsible for the appalling trends of yesteryear. But Revenge of the Nerds seems to view full-bore stalker material as a source of whimsy and humor. Hence our beleaguered heroes set up cameras in the sorority house so they can watch the girls get undressed, and chief nerd Lewis Skolnick (Robert Carradine) disguises himself as his lust object’s boyfriend in order to have sex with her. Is it rape? Does it matter? The creepy factor goes off the charts, and turns positively nuclear when the girl in question (Julia Montgomery) is so satisfied by his monster cock that she forgives him and becomes his girl on the spot.
Let’s pause to let everyone’s skin stop crawling, then we’ll continue.
Such content becomes easier to condemn in hindsight. We didn’t know better back then though we really should have. Far more depressing (if less infuriating) is the film’s failure on basic ha-ha terms. I’m hard pressed to think of a comedy as witless, crude, and haphazardly put together as this one. Director Jeff Kanew relies heavily on pratfalls to generate laughs, but lacks the timing and proper pacing to deliver them in any viable way. If you can’t handle a basic Man + Banana Peel equation, perhaps comedy isn’t your thing.
The story pits a gang of freshman outcasts against the Big Men on campus (and their evil slut girlfriends). Having set up the basic scenario, Kanew quickly devolves into inept flailing, as we watch the put-upon heroes suffer all manner of shame and indignity before fighting back… by heaping equal amounts of shame and indignity on their oppressors. Their brain power (these are nerds after all) plays only an incidental role, leaving them basically just as boorish and hateful as the jock douchebags who torment them. The film scores a little accidental insight by making the jocks’ attacks seemingly random and without purpose – pretty much how it feels when you’re on the receiving end – but it lacks any kind of forethought or character development. The frat boys are borderline criminals, and the nerds respond by fighting fire with fire. In any rational universe, the scenario would have ended with arrests and lawsuits long before anything interesting happens.
And again, that wouldn’t matter if the film could generate a single laugh. None are forthcoming, destroyed by a tone-deaf script and an endless array of jokes told by people who don’t seem to understand humor. That would kill the project even without the low-grade cruelty running beneath the whole thing. Worst of all, Revenge of the Nerds really had a chance to do something with its little tits-and-ass formula. There’s a plea for tolerance and inclusion somewhere in here, along with an ostensible sympathy for outsiders of all stripes that a better production could have done wonders with. You can chalk the lost opportunity up to the film’s other copious sins… topped by a reputation as an 80s classic it neither earns nor deserves. I’d say take a look for yourself, but that might mean shattering some fond memories. Best to keep them intact and leave Revenge of the Nerds as fuzzy nostalgia rather than the ugly failure it becomes in the cold light of day.