"I.Q." has one good idea: to cast Walter Matthau as Albert Einstein. Put a shuffling, German-accented Matthau in a sweat shirt, a silvery mustache and lion's mane, and you've got an amusingly convincing take on the man who devised the theory of relativity. Matthau's Einstein, however, dotes on a relative, his pretty mathematician niece Catherine (Meg Ryan), not relativity.
Alas, it's writers Andy Breckman and Michael Leeson's notion to have Einstein play matchmaker for Catherine. It's the kind of news that automatically makes you wary, and "I.Q." wastes no time in confirming your suspicion that we're in for a lot of contrived foolishness.
It's nice to see Matthau make Einstein a mensch, but it's off-putting to watch him and his three elderly genius pals (Lou Jacobi, Gene Saks and Joseph Maher) indulge in exceedingly elaborate ruses to steer Catherine away from an obtuse experimental psychologist (Stephen Fry, Peter in "Peter's Friends") and toward an ace Princeton auto mechanic (Tim Robbins).
Matthau himself takes a subtle, gentle nudging approach, but the script calls for him to indulge in major interference in his niece's life and to perform acts of credibility-defying dishonesty, such as passing off Robbins as a scientific genius, not just to Catherine but to the entire world. (The script also requires him to come right out and say the deathless phrase, "Don't let your brain get in the way of your heart," and it could have emphasized a bit more that Einstein wants to prevent Catherine from making the mistakes he made.)
Breckman and Leeson are dexterous in plotting out a finish that's clever scientifically, but they've not been able to banish the specter of predictability that hangs over the entire film.
The way the film, which tries hard to evoke '30s romantic screwball comedy, tells it, Robbins is a smart, likable guy for whom an encounter with Ryan really is love at first sight. Ryan, on the other hand, feels that she must make a "sensible" marriage--well, it is the '50s--while not completely acknowledging to herself just how intellectually daunted she is by her loving uncle, how obligated she feels to marry a genius.
Matthau has the best role, but Robbins and Ryan are finally simply too good for their material, which is not nearly inspired enough to do justice to their talent.
The same goes for director Fred Schepisi, who makes the most of each and every situation, but should be expending his efforts on a picture, whether comedy or drama, that's more worthy of his proven gifts.
* MPAA rating: PG for some mild language. Times guidelines: It includes scenes of ethically dubious situations.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Tim Robbins: Ed Walters Meg Ryan: Catherine Boyd Walter Matthau: Albert Einstein Stephen Fry: James Morland A Paramount Pictures presentation of a Sandollar production. Director Fred Schepisi. Producers Carol Baum, Schepisi. Executive producers Scott Rudin, Sandy Gallin. Screenplay by Andy Breckman, Michael Leeson; from a story by Breckman. Cinematographer Ian Baker. Editor Jill Bilcock. Costumes Ruth Myers. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Production designer Stuart Wurtzel. Art director Wray Steven Graham. Set decorator Gretchen Rau. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.