This year marks the 30th anniversary of that classic tale of nerds versus jocks, Revenge of the Nerds (RotN). (For those unchristened, know that I let loose here with few minor character spoilers, but nothing that would totally ruin the film.) Set in the 1950s (questionably, at best), RotN tells the story of Lewis Skolnick and Gilbert Lowell, two prototypical nerds with glasses, pocket protectors, and highwaters, as they embark on their freshman year at Adams College. Lewis and Gilbert quickly find enemies in the school’s jocks, most of whom form the formidable Alpha Beta fraternity. But they also find friends within a group of nerdy, geeky, and/or dorky guys that include the nearsighted Poindexter, the naïve Takashi, and the sarcastic yet “high”-ly loveable Booger. Together the guys attempt to form their own fraternity, seeking chaptership from Lambda Lambda Lambda. Meanwhile, Lewis deals wholeheartedly with his crush on Betty, girlfriend of Alpha Beta leader Stan, and the group attempts to make name for themselves on campus. And it’s all wrapped up with a short yet stirring speech from Lewis on togetherness, complete with the rallying cry “Nerds! Nerds! Nerds!”
I recently picked up Revenge of the Nerds as a gift for my husband (somehow we didn’t have this movie in our collection despite it being one of his favorites, and that tragedy had to be rectified), and it was just as enjoyable and funny as ever. But what always strikes me about the film, no matter how many times I’ve seen it, is how sweet it is. And I don’t mean that in the “duuuude, sweet!” way, but in an honest, heartfelt way. Now, it is a R-rated picture, so it’s got its fair share of adult moments, but they don’t define the movie. Unlike, say, Animal House and Porky’s, RotN isn’t about partying, girls, and screwing around. Those elements are part of the nerds’ lives, but they don’t live within them as much as, say, the jocks. They are still smart people after all, and they are able to use their collective wit to win not only the hearts and minds of the immediate cast but also those of the greater audience. None of the nerds are ever presented as close-minded bookworms who can’t see past their own fetishes, a trope that seems commonplace today. Instead, they are each unique individuals, with strengths and weaknesses, wants and emotions, and fears and triumphs, just like everyone else.
The nerds are also inclusive; and in fact, together the group almost deifies the term “nerd.” (Even more so when the guys team up with the Omega Mu’s, a sorority of similar ilk.) Is Larry a “nerd” in his lavender legwarmers? How about Booger with his gross-out ways and leather jacket? Is he a “nerd?” (Pardon the diversion and my French, but his line, “what the f*** is a ‘frush’?” might just be one of the most amazing lines in cinema history.) Is Takashi a “nerd” simply because he doesn’t understand English very well? No to all, but they are outcasts, and so is the group as a whole. After a dorm snafu, they end up together with no where else to go and with no one to turn to. They are the unwanted. But united, they learn to live, laugh, and love. As well as play some serious jams.
Probably the best thing about RotN is that the movie never makes fun of the nerds themselves. There are no wedgies, no swirlies, and no one is ever stuffed in a gym locker. No one is ever outwardly made fun of for having big glasses or funny hair. Larry’s effeminate ways are positively highlighted without ever being mocked. Booger’s penchant for illicit substances helps the group rather than hinders. The age of young genius Harold Wormser is never questioned as if he doesn’t belong. If anything, it’s the jocks in the movie that are made up as caricatures, meatheads who only want to win the game and get the girl (but not before hitting the gym, of course.)
Revenge of the Nerds isn’t a world-changing movie, but it almost seems otherworldly. Like, it’s from a past that can’t be revisited. In watching recent interviews with the cast, one remark that came up repeatedly was that it’s not a movie that could be made today. It’s too raunchy. (Really?) It’s too kindhearted. (Yes.) It’s not intense enough. (What? Like the recent award-winning Project X? Also, sarcasm.) At some point, nerds (and by extension, geek, dorks, and so on), became Hollywood’s sole source of derision. Sure, in movies they always fought back, but not without something terrible or even life-threatening happening first. (The RotN cast is never physically roughed up. Threats are vocalized but never acted upon.) Somewhere along the way, the “outcast” became the stereotype, and the “nerd” became the whipping boy. Why, even recent depictions of “nerds” in the media makes RotN seem downright angelic. (I’m looking a you King of the Nerds. There’s a good bit of irony in it if you know who created that show. A rant on that is forthcoming.)
If you’ve not seen Revenge of the Nerds, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s not without some uneven spots and squelched production values, but I guarantee you’ll be quoting it before too long. After all, it’s a movie about people, people trying to make sweet, sweet lemonade out of mean, mean lemons. And who can’t relate to that? RotN is about people who find support in one another and respect from outsiders as well, despite their funny voices and awkward appearances. It just so happens that these people are intelligent, caring, and only want to best for those around them. If that’s the definition of a nerd, then count me in.