...with no depth to the main character and little that's really funny to commend its script, Young Einstein falls as flat as old dad's beer.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Science and religion both teach us that there are reasons for everything. Nothing, however, explains the reason for this movie.

You may remember Yahoo Serious, the writer, director, producer, and star of 1988's "Young Einstein," in the same way you remember other instantly made, instantly forgotten celebrities--people like Pia Zadora, Scott "Carrot Top" Thompson, or the infamous Rula Lenska. And you may remember the movie "Young Einstein" as one of the least-funny pieces of tomfoolery ever made. I would also point out that as of this writing, Warner Bros. had still not transferred Bogart and Hepburn's "The African Queen" to DVD. But they saw fit to spend good money giving us material of questionable distinction like this. The movie world doth move in mysterious ways.

OK, maybe I overstate the case. Maybe there are millions of people worldwide who think "Young Einstein" is the height of hilarity, the epitome of motion-picture madness, the very touchstone of high cinematic humor. Let me just say I'm not one of them.

Australian Greg Pead, who legally changed his name to Yahoo Serious, had great success in Australia and Europe with his low-budget "Young Einstein" movie, although it fared less well in the U.S. He followed it up with two other films, "Reckless Kelly" (1993) and "Mr. Accident" (2000), which both bombed. So, he is to this point a one-hit wonder. But, as I say, the "hit" is of dubious merit.

This despite some formidable accomplishments from a first-time filmmaker working on a relatively small budget. The fact is that the film is remarkably well made. The set designs, costumes, art direction, and music are first-rate. The cinematography is sometimes spectacular. The special effects are better and more sophisticated than they have a right to be. And the acting, even from Serious, is more subtle, more nuanced, than one would expect from such a silly affair. The problem is that none of the film's exceptionally good qualities add up to anything exceptionally good; they don't serve any higher purpose. This is a comedy, yet for me it produced no outright laughs and only the very occasional smile. "Young Einstein" is good to look at and good to listen to, and while it's admittedly an amiable little film, it does nothing to elicit outright admiration. Although it is brief at only ninety-one minutes, I was hoping for it to end a half an hour in.

The setting for the story is 1905, where Albert Einstein is a young man living with his mum and dad (Peewee Wilson and Su Cruickshank) on a tiny farm in the hinterlands of Tasmania, an island off the south coast of Australia. It's here that young Albert wakes up one morning to discover the laws of gravity, reaction, and inertia; no matter that the laws had already been formulated several hundred years earlier.

His dad is brewing beer in the barn, but like beer everywhere it has no head, no bubbles, a shame really. His dad hopes that some day someone will invent a way to make beer foam, saying "The person who succeeds will change the world forever." So Albert does succeed in putting in the bubbles by devising a way to split the atoms in beer. Which, of course, leads him to formulate the celebrated equation E=MC2. Fair enough. In fact, I've read there is substance behind the beer-bubbles notion; it seems that beer does not have natural bubbles but they have to be added later. I don't think it's by splitting beer atoms in a nuclear reactor, though.

In any event, Albert is encouraged by his dad to patent the idea, so he packs up and heads off to the mainland. While he's on a train, about thirty minutes into the movie, I smiled for the first time when Albert scratches his face with a lizard. Well, it's in his pocket, you see, and he pulls it out to show a fellow passenger, and, I mean, since it's in his hand, he decides to put it to good use. Yeah, well, it's not much, but elicited maybe more than a smile from me--say a mild chuckle.

It's also on the train that he meets the other two main characters in this rather slim story: Marie Curie (Odile Le Clezio), the scientist who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, with whom Albert strikes up an immediate friendship; and Preston Preston (John Howard), the snobby and unscrupulous head of the Sydney Patent office, who later tries to steal Albert's beer-bubble formula for his own personal gain.

Anyway, as the story proceeds, Albert follows Marie to France, invents roll-and-rock music as well as electronic music; draws up his first theories of relativity, meets luminaries like Sigmund Freud, the Wright Brothers, and Charles Darwin; and gets thrown into a lunatic asylum. It's in the asylum that he and his fellow patients sit around the bath discussing nuclear fission, gravity, uniform motion, and relativity in the fashion of a Monty Python skit. It's cute. Albert finally winds up saving the world with his music. Ho-hum.

It's all very lickety-split, jumping quickly from one dead-end joke to the next. To its credit, the movie is never gross, demeaning, or insulting. It's just all rather dull. Yet comedy strikes different people differently. That is, you may crack up at the sight of Yahoo Serious in his frizzed-out hair sitting in a wash tub bathing with his violin. Serious gets a lot of mileage out of his Einstein fright-wig and the beer gag, but that's about it. Ms. Le Clezio is beautiful and appealing as Ms. Curie, and John Howard is appropriately smarmy as the villain. But with no depth to the main character and little that's really funny to commend its script, "Young Einstein" falls as flat as old dad's beer.

The widescreen picture is presented in an enhanced, anamorphic ratio measuring approximately 1.75:1 across my standard-screen Sony HD television. A high bit rate ensures that the colors are bright and solid, with good depth and object delineation. Contrasts are strong, if sometimes a touch too dark to allow ultimate detail to show through. However, there is also an unfortunately rough, fairly grainy quality throughout most of the film that detracts from everything else. When the picture is good, it is excellent, but when it's not...well, it's not.

The soundtrack is a rather ordinary two-channel stereo, rendered more clearly via Dolby Digital 2.0 processing. I have few complaints, except that any surround information you receive is primarily up to your amplifier or receiver's decoding (like Pro Logic) to supply. The backgrounds are quiet, the front-channel stereo spread is adequate, the dynamics and frequency response are moderate, and the rear speakers are occasionally fed some small amounts of musical-ambiance material. That is about it, though the rock music could have used greater impact.

Like the movie, there is isn't much there. A widescreen theatrical trailer; twenty-four scene selections;
English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are all you get. I'm not sure how much more you'd want.

Parting Shots:
Give Yahoo Serious credit for having created a movie out of virtually nothing but his own ingenuity. But a good movie must have more than a good old college try. It's got to have characters that are memorable or engaging and a script that accomplishes some purpose. "Young Einstein" attempts to be an offbeat farce, a far-out comedy of the absurd. No fault there. But it's got to be funny, too.


Film Value