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POOR UNCLE ALBERT

The last time I checked, Albert Einstein was better known as the most brilliant theoretical physicist in human history than as a cute old prankster with white hair whose corduroys were always slipping over his butt.

But then, I could be wrong. My SAT scores were lukewarm, I went to a mere Big Ten school and, to me, "unified field theory" sounds like something John Elway knows about but I don't. So I'm prepared to believe everything director Fred Schepisi and two genius screenwriters (Andy Breckman and Michael Leeson) say in their new comedy, I.Q.

For instance: Near the end of his 22-year tenure at Princeton University, where he presumably revealed the intricacies of photoelectric emission and Brownian motion to breathless graduate students, Einstein also found time to foment a romance between his beautiful but repressed mathematician niece, Catherine (who looked just like Meg Ryan), and a local garage mechanic named Ed (a dead ringer for Tim Robbins). While President Eisenhower and the boys over at the Pentagon worried themselves sick about what the Russkies were up to, total-nuclear-destruction-wise, Einstein and three of his furry-looking, wisecracking buddies from the Old Country, who also happened to be some of the leading scientific minds of the century, spent most of their time making sure Catherine and Ed wound up in the right bar together, or on the same sailboat, or in the same New Jersey lovers' lane.

The hell with Khrushchev or the Yellow Peril or the Cold War, I.Q. tells us. We want these two wonderful kids to go out and have a good time for themselves.

Schepisi, whose previous films have revealed plenty of feeling for social outsiders--Sean Connery's disenchanted spy in The Russia House, the clever black kid in Six Degrees of Separation, the faded Yankees star shunted off to Japan in Mr. Baseball--gives us some more misfits here. Robbins's grinning Ed is a grease-smeared high school graduate who reads Popular Science and loves it when the nutty professors suddenly reinvent him, then prop him up as a boy-wonder physicist who's unlocked the secret of cold fusion--in the mid-Fifties. Ryan's Catherine is the smart girl who's afraid not to be smart and who's chosen the wrong man as a result. Einstein--Walter Matthau, of course; haven't you always thought of him as the Father of Relativity?--is portrayed as a batty eccentric who probably couldn't match his socks without help and who wants nothing more complicated from life than to get the top sawed off of his stodgy steel-gray Plymouth and have the engine souped up.

"Wah-hoo!" the fun-loving genius shouts from the back of Ed's Harley-Davidson.

Fun stuff? Not really, because it strains pretty hard for its laughs. Schepisi knows outsiders, but screwball comedy is not his thing. The only really convincing comic character, the only one with the right touch of madness, is Stephen Fry's tweedy British psychologist, James, the conniving stuffed shirt who delights in torturing his human subjects over at the laboratory and who wants to doom Catherine to a life of faculty cocktail parties. James is such an irretrievable twit that we actually look forward to each new outburst of foolishness.

Let's not talk about Ryan and Robbins, all right? They look like they're drawing paychecks here. It's Matthau's self-consciously "lovable," shaggy-dog Einstein that comes off as the real oddity in I.Q.--half Disney fantasy, half old Yiddish guy stumbling down the sidewalk to the deli for a nice bowl of soup. Once the Friends of Albert Einstein, or the Big Al Fan Club, or whatever group seeks to preserve the dignity of the world's great thinkers, gets a gander at this well-meaning but insufferably mushy bit of slapstick, they may start hurling their old slide rules at the people from Paramount Pictures. Deflating intellectual pretension is one thing (authentic screwballers like Preston Sturges did it beautifully in the Thirties); mindlessly mocking intellect is quite another.

In the end, as everyone (including President Eisenhower) rides off into the Princeton sunset, we are left with the same old message every egghead since the Fifties has been burdened with and which has been shopped around the movies since long before that. "Don't let your brain interfere with your heart," kindly, none-too-swift Uncle Albert advises Catherine.

Okay, then. As long as you don't keep harping on it. But this feeble brain still has a couple of questions about the movie, Mr. Schepisi. One: If Einstein died in 1955 (you can look it up), how come the movie has him and his septuagenarian pals rocking out to Little Richard's "Tutti-Frutti" in the Great Man's chopped-and-channeled Plymouth? "Tutti-Frutti" wasn't released until 1956 (you can look that up, too). Two: If young Catherine is the daughter of Einstein's brother (Big Al indicates this at one point) and she's never been married, why is her last name Boyd?

Just asking--from the wrong side of the bell curve.

 
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