35 Years Ago: The ‘Nerds’ Franchise Starts To Spiral With ‘II’
There are only two possibilities for a sequel: It can be better than the first film, or it can be worse – and the vast majority of them are worse. There's no shame in that. Making a movie is a hard thing to do. But the reasons behind the worseness (or, occasionally, the betterness) of a film often tell us a great deal about the franchise.
This is precisely the case with Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise, which debuted on July 10, 1987. The original Revenge of the Nerds, from 1984, had been something of a surprise hit, grossing some $40 million against a budget of $8 million. Beyond this, though, it put a pin into a moment.
By the middle of the '80s, American male pop culture had developed a strong frat boy-with-a-pastel sweater vibe. It had supplanted the hairy-chested, mustached and borderline seedy man of the '70 with a blond, blue-eyed prep who was equally comfortable rowing up the Charles River in his racing shell as he was canoodling in a Manhattan bar after a day of work as a stockbroker.
This also created a reaction, of course. A spate of films soon appeared in which people alienated by this fit, tanned, shiny-smile ideal teamed up to prove that the outsiders could do it just as well, and be more humane in the process. Revenge of the Nerds set the template, with its story of a group of nerds who want to start a college fraternity but have to overcome a group of annoying, preppy frat-bros before they can.
In the process, it took an established template and gave it a specific, nerd-heroic spin. In predecessors like Animal House or Caddyshack, the protagonists were simply uncool. In Revenge of the Nerds, they were given specific identifiers: absurd laughs, heavy-framed glasses repaired with tape, pocket protectors, the inability to complete high-fives, and an abiding interest in subjects that were then seen as signifying un-manliness, like computers.
Watch the trailer for 'Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise'
The film was so successful that it immediately spawned a host of imitators, like Weird Science and Real Genius. But it also helped inject a new idea into the culture: It could be cool to be dorky. This was a slow process – the ultimate mainstreaming of nerd culture, as evidenced by something like the success of Big Bang Theory, was still 20 years in the future – but it was already seeping into every corner of the zeitgeist.
At the end of 1985, Nerds candy was named "Candy of the Year" by the National Candy Wholesalers Association, and by the following year Huey Lewis and the News had a hit on their hands with "Hip to be Square." In 1987, Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise was released, intended ride what was becoming a profitable wave.
The story of this film parallels that of the to the first. The nerds established their fraternity as a chapter of Lambda Lambda Lambda in the earlier movie, and are now traveling to Fort Lauderdale during spring break to attend a fraternity conference. Unfortunately, their old nemeses the Alpha Betas are also there, and have concocted a plan to prevent the Tri-Lams from being fully recognized. First, they torment the nerds by getting them kicked out of their hotel, then they trick them with a vaguely "native American" ritual and make them run through a swamp in their underwear.
The nerds fight back – trying to prove their worth by performing a rap rock song at a talent show – but they soon find themselves first being arrested and put in jail, and then stranded on a deserted island. (Their primary Alpha Beta tormentor, named Ogre, is also there and he eventually switches sides and becomes a nerd.) In the end, they find an amphibious assault vehicle belonging to the Cuban army and make a triumphant, militaristic surprise appearance at the fraternity conference, winning everyone over to their side once and for all.
Watch the Nerds Play Rap/Rock in 'Revenge of the Nerds II'
Although this plot is ridiculous, it's not really the problem with the film. Nor is the cast, which is mostly intact from the first movie, with one major exception. Robert Carradine (from the famous acting family) is back as Lewis Skolnick, Curtis Armstrong reappears as "Booger," Donald Gibb once again plays Ogre, and even the venerable James Cromwell reprises his role as Lewis's father.
The exception is Anthony Edwards, who had starred in the first film alongside Carradine as Gilbert Lowe, but chose not to be featured prominently in the sequel. (His appearance in Top Gun from 1986 may have had something to do with it.) Edwards' sweet earnestness is greatly missed. Without his steadying influence, and the emotional center of his friendship with Lewis, the film feels almost immediately stale.
This flatness pervades a great deal of Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise, which seems to trade its underdog comedy for overused tropes, and to turn what had once been a surprising worldview into a kind of winking, insider joke. This is evident in the opening, which finds a pocket protector flying through space, followed by scrolling text in a Star Wars homage. It's a flat gag, already overused by 1987, at which point George Lucas's masterpiece was a decade old.
Unfortunately, that falls in line with most of the other gags in the film, from the broken-down hotel the nerds inhabit to the rather barbaric parody of the Seminole Indians, to the Stripes-style military bit at the end. Three years after the first film, the ugly specter of cliche is already rearing its head.
The original Revenge of the Nerds is by no means a great movie, although it has developed something of a cult following. (The less said about its view of women and minorities, the better.) At the same time, however, part of the secret of its success is the film had a certain freshness, and Revenge of the Nerds wore its heart on its sleeve. Unfortunately, the sequel feels like a pale imitation: What was once a sly statement of anti-mainstream sentiment was already becoming co-opted by the culture it once tried to subvert.
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