Its trailer trumpets that Young Einstein is a film “Warner Bros. is proud to present.” While the studios say that about all their films, Warner Bros. went out of its way to prove it, as the company spent $8 million to advertise a film written, directed by, and starring someone completely unknown to American audiences. They hoped for a replay of Crocodile Dundee which, like Young Einstein, did big business in its native Australia before being imported to the States. But as the Bible tells us, pride goeth before destruction: While Crocodile Dundee yielded a $174 million take at the 1986 American box office, an Oscar nomination, and two sequels, Young Einstein settled for a paltry $11 million in receipts and a one-way ticket to obscurity.
Technically speaking, the film did make a profit. Warner Bros.’s marketing machine got audiences to come out to see the unforgettably named Yahoo Serious reimagine German-born Princeton, NJ native Albert Einstein as the son of Tasmanian farmers. In addition to playing the Aussie-fied Einstein, Serious also wrote and directed the film, and the opening credit announcing his auteur status is Young Einstein’s biggest laugh: It reads “A Serious Film.”
A serious film this is not. Young Einstein begins in a Tasmanian village complete with its own Tasmanian devil. It’s an appropriate opening as this is one big Looney Tunes cartoon, where people get hit with heavy items, go flying through the air, and emerge from explosions and electrocutions covered in smoke and disturbingly appearing as if they’re wearing blackface. A true-life figure’s history is retold with little regard for the truth, and the main character is a funny-looking wiseass who’s smarter than everyone around him.
Those who went into fits of apoplexy over the scientific illogic of Luc Besson’s Lucy should steer clear of Young Einstein. It has our Albert solving the problem of flat beer by splitting the beer atom with a chisel. It also has him preventing a nuclear explosion with an electric guitar and trying to patent E=MC² as the means to put bubbles in beer. When Albert’s burnt piece of paper with “E=MC²” on it is stolen by evil, upper-class beer-maker and romantic rival Preston Preston (John Howard), it proves to be the only detail required to build an atomic bomb that puts a great, foamy head on a mug of Fosters.
E=MC² can also make hot female scientists fall in love with you. Einstein’s beer experiments send him to Sydney, where en route he meets Marie Curie (Odile Le Clezio). She has a suitor in Preston Preston, but Albert’s scientific ramblings make her fall in love with his brain, and when Albert is committed to the insane asylum for those same ramblings, Curie loves him so much that she sneaks into the asylum’s locker room dressed like a man in order to help him escape. Curie is so fixated on Albert that she fails to notice she’s surrounded by several bare-assed men. The MPAA must have been similarly distracted, because Young Einstein is rated PG.
Despite the “brief male rear nudity” (as the MPAA would describe it today), Young Einstein is as harmless and tween-friendly as the dopey Disney fare ’70s-era kids were spoon-fed by the Family Disney Summer Hit Parade. Why the film isn’t on heavy rotation on TBS or TNT today is a mystery, as it has the appropriate dosage of Saturday-afternoon-movie stupidity. What makes it tolerable is the sense that, for all its silliness, there’s someone in control at the helm: Serious thought—pardon the pun—was put into some of the gags and throwaway lines, and the film, which is decently shot, has a sense of timing that’s moderately successful.
Serious’s most distinguishing feature is his unruly hair, which serves as both a reminder of Einstein’s own unkempt mane and the endless series of ’80s-era stand-up comedians memorable only for their wacky hairdos. But unlike, say, Carrot Top, the multihyphenate is far less annoying than his appearance would indicate: He won’t win any awards for acting, but there’s an underlying sincerity to his Einstein that’s almost enough to smooth over the film’s bumpier bits and flimsy characterizations. The most incredulous thing Young Einstein tells us about Albert is that he, armed with his electrified violin and guitar, invented rock n’ roll music. While this should get Yahoo Serious’s ass kicked by Little Richard and the ghost of Ike Turner, the inventor’s credit and the ensuing performance of a Chuck Berry song still seems less racially offensive than that similar scene with Marty McFly in Back to the Future.
Young Einstein would make a good double bill with Fred Schepisi’s far superior I.Q. That film features “old Einstein” in the guise of Walter Matthau, who tries to help Tim Robbins get busy with Meg Ryan. Neither cinematic Einstein hews closely to the truth, but they both use science for what could be considered evil purposes.
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