(1988) Directed by Yahoo Serious; Written by Yahoo Serious and David Roach; Starring: Yahoo Serious, Odile Le Clezio, John Howard, Peewee Wilson and Su Cruickshank;
Available on DVD.
“…Then there's the time the country rallies together to beat back Hell, like the time we as a nation said no to Yahoo Serious.” Joel (Joel Hodgson) from Mystery Science Theater 3000
After nearly 25 years ago, it was time to confront my demons, and revisit a dark period in my past that I had kept hidden from the world. While my memory of Young Einstein was somewhat hazy, I seemed to recall the film as eccentric and misunderstood. As a video store clerk, I was prone to championing it to anyone who’d listen. I’d quote a few choice lines at the drop of a hat, and even purchased the soundtrack. Now I’m not saying that I was off the mark with all of my movie choices, but everyone makes an error in judgment now and then.* Realizing that tastes change over the years, I knew that time was nigh to re-evaluate my assessment of Young Einstein. Could I have been wrong? Was it an unfairly maligned comic gem or an unfunny misfire worthy of our collective scorn?
* Referencing my first, ill-chosen pick for a girlfriend, my mom commented, “You have taste in your ass.” Take that as you will.
So, what did a second viewing, separated by two and a half decades, yield? Was Young Einstein as bad as its reputation suggested? Yes and no. Humor is a subjective thing. Some people find Adam Sandler hilarious and Woody Allen grating. Some prefer Buster Keaton’s antics to Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. There’s no surefire formula for comedy, and there’s no accounting for taste. With this in mind, I can only report that I found Young Einstein sporadically amusing, and by sporadic, I mean a couple scenes elicited a smirk. Not to say there weren’t some clever visual gags, but they were often nullified by the film’s mugging lead.
The film asks us to take a huge leap by accepting its basic premise – Albert Einstein didn’t really grow up in Germany, but on a Tasmanian apple farm. If you’re good with that, then you’ll probably accept anything, as its titular character hobnobs with science luminaries Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Marie Curie. Young Einstein plays fast and loose with history and science, as our hero simultaneously discovers the theory of relativity, invents rock ‘n roll and puts bubbles in beer. When an apple lands on Einstein’s head, resulting in an epiphany, we need to suspend our disbelief that the laws of gravity weren’t discovered before 1906.
Yahoo Serious (aka: Greg Pead), who started out with documentary and short comic films, took the auteur route (and I use the term “auteur” very loosely here) with Young Einstein. His name appears in the credits six (!) times, as star, director, writer, producer, stunts and supervising editor. It’s a lot of pieces to juggle, and unfortunately Mr. Serious can’t keep everything in the air for long. First the good. He obviously has an eye for visuals, with some nicely framed vistas and elaborate set pieces. The film is infused with frenetic energy, which might not keep you from being annoyed, but you won’t be bored. But Serious’ enthusiasm is also his undoing. He seems like a precocious child who will try anything to get your attention, waving his arms about and shouting, “Look at me, look at me! Aren’t I funny?” Some of the questionable comic choices were obviously cribbed from old Warner Brothers cartoons, as when he shows up twice in blackface to simulate getting fried by electricity. The soundtrack is peppered with wacky sounds to punctuate the “silly” moments. While the music tracks represent a nice sampling of Aussie pop and rock from the 80s, they contribute to scenes that resemble music videos rather than integral parts of a whole (what Roger Ebert would have labeled the “Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude”). When he frolics on the beach with his girlfriend and newly invented surfboard, the results look like something from the old Monkees TV show.
As I re-watched Young Einstein, I was painfully aware of the fact that I wasn’t nearly as fond of it as I remembered. While the film was a huge hit in Australia (despite mixed critical reception), it failed to win over many fans in the United States. Perhaps my original impression was obscured by my post-adolescent desire to buck the trend of popular opinion? I suppose I’ll never be able to reconcile this chaotic stage in my past. Young Einstein is best described as a near miss; a curiosity best left as a cinematic footnote. Serious swings for the fences, but ends up with a foul ball. I’m keeping the soundtrack, though.