This summer, moviegoers get to choose between two explanations of the origin of rock 'n' roll. In "Great Balls of Fire," Jerry Lee Lewis peers into the black heart of the night and finds sin, sex, rhythm and boogie-woogie. Then there's the revisionist view of "Young Einstein" (citywide), in which rock springs forth full blown as the instant result of a white man's scientific formula.
To a generation of kids who've grown up on research-driven radio hits and formulaic music videos, it's understandable that the latter genesis will probably seem like the true one.
"Young Einstein" comes to America as the last stop on a world-domination whistle-stop tour, having already proven a surprise smash hit in most of the Earth's cinematic territories--especially its country of origin, Australia, where it broke all box-office records. And, frankly, its unrepentant goofiness may make you a little afraid for--or of--these countries.
Can anyone who worried about the mental health of France after that whole Jerry Lewis medal business fail to be deeply alarmed over the popular deification of director/writer/star Yahoo Serious in the lands Down Under?
The Lewis connection is a real one, thanks to Serious' characterization of his title genius as a bumbler who falls out of windows while putting on his pants. (His grown-up sexlessness may also remind you of Pee-wee Herman.) The legend of Albert Einstein's feeble school record and apparent absent-mindedness are no doubt what inspired Serious to conceive an entire movie in which the budding scientist stumbles into brilliant discoveries by happenstance and accident. Young Al is so naive he doesn't know his cheap hotel is actually a brothel. He can't conceive that his atom-splitting inventions might ever be used for evil purposes. Oh yes, he also invents surfing \o7 and \f7 rock, which, for this picture's target audience, are far more significant achievements than any old theory of relativity.
For any number of reasons, "Young Einstein" just may be the best movie of the summer for the young 'uns. Neither Grail water nor battery acid causes anyone's face to melt and, moreover, it has a genuine sweetness rarely found even in pre-teen-oriented pix.
It could serve as a sort of healing salve for outcast kids with its lesson that even if your hair is unkempt, you can't keep a job, you're bumbling, gangly and shy and everyone laughs at your ideas, you may still turn out to be the greatest mind of your generation and drive the girls wild to boot. There are less healthy morals for kids in this year's PG collection, to be sure.
Adults may have more of a problem, not so much for the ludicrous bending of history as much as the unerring silliness of so many time-worn gags. In Serious' scenario, Einstein's theories eventually land him in a lunatic asylum, where his girlfriend, Marie Curie (Odile le Clezio), comes to visit him dressed as a man. When they kiss, in the oldest drag gag known to man or "Yentl," the fellow inmates look on in homophobic horror. And the dialogue never gets much beyond the level of: "Science, eh? I'm keenly interested." "Pleased to meet you, Keenly!"
Serious fares far better as a first-time director who knows better than to place too much time or weight on any one gag. "Einstein" has a handsome period look, even when director of photography Jeff Darling is shooting the musical montages that periodically break up the action. The pop-song choices include savvy picks from the catalogs of such fine Aussie outfits as the Models, the Lime Spiders, Big Pig and Paul Kelly, and one of the picture's loopiest, best moments has Serious spontaneously breaking into dance alongside a troop of Hare Krishnas to the tune of the Saints' sprightly "The Music Goes Round My Head."
If Serious only used rock as incongruous source music instead of a subject, he wouldn't get into so much trouble. It may not be too grouchy to complain that movies like this and "Back to the Future" steer close to racism when they lightheartedly try to steal the origins of rock away from the ethnic forces that shaped it. (Serious does include a shot of a bushman playing a pipe while he sings the line about "my man a-wailin' sax" in the climactic version of Chuck Berry's "Rock 'n' Roll Music," which, if meant as his nod to black culture, is a pretty insensitive one.)
However, it's just about impossible to dislike a movie in which examples of the hero's pacifism include his risking his life to save kitties from being baked to death inside a pie. And even through his abundance of bad jokes, Serious manages to rack up more good will than bad, as a deadpan comic actor whose voice seems to be evolving into puberty with each line reading. Perhaps it's wrong to expect more out of what is essentially a children's film; the title is, after all, "Young Einstein," not "Thirtysomething Einstein." Still, grown-ups may wish the level of sophistication here were more Monty Python and less Monkees, more \o7 yahoo \f7
and less \o7 yikes\f7 .