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— One has to credit the producers of The Genius Club for playing it straight. Other producers of Christian faith-based films try to shop for reviewers "sympathetic" to their world view, or refuse to provide critics with opportunity to review their films. Their thinking, I suppose, is that a lot of secular film critics are liable to be hostile to their products.

They might have a point, given the way we tend to evaluate movies - good intentions and an evangelical imperative don't count for much. While I will admit to rooting for any film that demonstrates the possibility of moviemaking outside the system (I'm for undermining Hollywood hegemony by any means necessary), if you're trying to attract a general audience to your movie then you're susceptible to critical scrutiny. Boring sermons won't hack it.

The Genius Club isn't boring; it's a surprisingly entertaining film, given that it consists of scenes of people sitting around a conference table arguing. And it strains credulity by suggesting that Stephen Baldwin may be one of the smartest people in the country. (On the other hand, that may be one of the movie's best jokes.)

The premise is incredibly simple and needlessly convoluted: Mad scientist Armand (a firebreathing Tom Sizemore, apparently on the comeback trail) has planted a nuclear device 10 blocks from the White House and is threatening to detonate it unless seven geniuses rounded up by government men in black can solve the world's problems - as framed by the scenery-ravaging Sizemore - in a single night.

The geniuses - identified by IQ scores, which the feds apparently keep in a huge database - are a terminally ill artist (Tricia Helfer), a cynical casino owner (Carol Abney), an asthmatic biochemist (Paula Jai Parker), an ARod-esque professional baseball player (Matt Medrano) who only took the stupid IQ test because sportswriters kept calling him dumb, a former avaricious attorney turned soft-spoken seminary student (Jacob Bonnema), a pompous professor of economics (Philip Moon), and Baldwin's faithless pizza delivery guy.

Kibitzing are the take-charge U.S. president (Jack Scalia as an idealized version of George W. Bush without the Texas drawl), and the unfortunately wooden Huntley Ritter as a top anti-terrorism agent.

While Armand tells the assembled company they're going to play a game, what occurs is more like a didactic graduate school seminar, with points arbitrarily awarded according to how congruent they are with Professor Armand's thinking. The fun - and there is quite a bit to be had - derives in part from the over-the-top performance by Sizemore and the sometimes painfully ordinary "insights" of the ostensive geniuses, but the film is surprisingly free of cant.

While auteur Tim Chey is a way better director than he is a writer, Armand's rants can be taken as an earnest if simplistic critique of American-style capitalism. Chey may have stacked the deck - you know Baldwin's pizza dude will have a third-act roadto-Damascus moment - but the movie doesn't hard sell the baby Jesus.

It is plagued by uneven writing and acting - Sizemore is bad in a good way, Baldwin is flat, Parker has an affecting little speech, and the geniuses run from OK to mediocre - but The Genius Club isn't a proselytizing tract or a preachment to the choir. It's an honest to gosh real movie. It's not a great one, or even a very good one, but believe me, you've seen worse.

MovieStyle, Pages 41 on 02/01/2008


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