If I Had Known I Was a Genius, the screenwriting debut of actor Markus Redmond (who also plays the lead in the film), starts out with promise. Michael (Redmond), breaking the invisible "fourth wall" -- a technique used throughout the script -- informs us that he's going to tell us the story of his life, starting from when he was about six years old and his older sister pushed him down a flight of stairs. The interesting technique here is that Redmond, the adult actor, plays himself at various ages, from six (cramming his adult body into a first grade school desk) all the way to present day (in his uniform for the Costco-type warehouse store he works in, present day), and for a while, at least, that novelty entertains.
Whoopi Goldberg plays Michael's mom, whose childhood nickname for her son was "ugly." (When Michael confronts his mother about this later she replies, "What? I didn't want you to get a big head.") Early on, Michael's teachers figure out that he's smart -- really smart. Certainly smarter than they'd ever expected a black student to be. So Michael is shipped to a mostly white school for "bright" students where, much to his surprise, he finds he actually fits in. Then they figure out that Michael is even smarter than that, so they send him to a school for the really brainy kids. There, Michael is miserable because of the pressure and workload.
Eventually, Michael's dad (Keith David) decides to pack up and move the family from Philly to California, where Michael spends more time trying to fit in, before finally ending up in the skater crowd. He also ends up in the drama program, where he falls into the clutches of over-the-top drama queen/teacher Gloria (Sharon Stone, in a performance that's pretty funny, if a bit overdone). After shooting down Michael's dreams of being an architect ("All the buildings been built already!") or a psychiatrist ("They don't let black folks see into white folks brains!"), Michael's mom inexplicably latches onto the idea of him being an actor.
If I Had Known I Was a Genius is a likable, mostly crowd-pleasing film with a lot of funny moments, and yet somehow it mysteriously falls a little flat in the latter half. One minute the film is moving along at a nice clip; the next your sloughing through molasses. There's a part in the middle that drags things down considerably, and the film would benefit from some hard-core editing -- it runs 102 minutes now, and could easily be cut down to 82-90 minutes max without losing a thing.
The other problem the film has is that some of the characters are too one-dimensional, and are never fully drawn enough for us to really care about or appreciate them. Take Stephanie (Tara Reid), for instance -- the hot blond chick who belongs to the alpha dog of the skater pack -- she's the only girl we ever see Michael have an attraction to through the entire film. There's not a lot of reason why this genius-level, really nice guy would even be attracted to her beyond her physical attributes. The drama teacher character, while funny, gets to be a little too much as well. Stone's interpretation of the character actually reminded me a great deal of Eunice's drama teacher -- played to perfection by Carol Kane -- on an old episode of The Carol Burnett Show (and boy, that's dating myself). And then there's Michael's family.
Why is Michael's mother so mean to her son, call. ing him ugly and putting him down? Why is his older sister also so mean to him? Why doesn't his father, who seems to like Michael the most of any of his family, put his foot down on it? There's no clear reason ever shown for this, other than the script calling for Michael to have come from a mean -- though not necessarily physically abusive -- background. Through all this, Michael never turns mean himself, he just keeps churning along and turning the other cheek and trying to be a good son and -- geez, I'm sure there are therapists paying their kids orthodontia bills off of grown men and women trying to get over their parents putting them down their entire childhoods, but at some point you just want Michael to stop being everybody's doormat.
It almost feels as if Redmond had the basic idea for this story: brainy kid unloved and unappreciated by his family -- and then molded peripheral characters to fit that idea, rather than fleshing out a full story with characters with motivations before he started writing his script. Nonetheless, the film does have a lot of very funny moments, and the packed end-of-fest crowd I saw it with was very responsive in spite of the dragging middle. Trim a little of the fat off to tighten it up a bit and Redmond and director Dominique Wirtschafter could have a cute, crowd-pleasing film on their hands.