Reviewing the old school: Young Einstein (1988)

I like the odd bit of alternate-history fiction. Usually the more serious stuff, where you take a particular historical conflict and basically go “then the aliens attacked” or “but actually there were magicians there too” or “suddenly, time travel!” Serious stuff. Young Einstein (written, directed by and starring Yahoo Serious – probably not the name he was born with) takes a more comedic route by asking its own grand question: what if, instead of Germany, Albert Einstein was born in Tasmania to Aussie apple farmers?

Well, for one, he still develops the Theory of Relativity in this version of reality, but its first application is to split a beer atom in order to carbonate his dad’s pint. Having succeeded in creating bubbly beer (something apparently impossible to do without causing a small atomic blast) Albert packs his bags and heads to Sydney via Uluru (dammit Jim he’s a physicist not a map-reader!) in order to patent his idea. He runs into (and falls in love with) the lovely Marie Curie (played with some fantastic expression by Odile Le Clezio) who has gone to study physics at the University of Sydney (USYD represent!) for some reason, has his idea stolen by foppish villain Preston Preston of the Perth Prestons (played by John Howard – the actor not the Prime Minister – who is wonderfully pompous, cowardly and greedy), invents rock’n’roll music, then uses rock’n’roll music to diffuse an atomic bomb (saving the lives of thousands, including an apparently still kicking Charles Darwin).

Yeah, you shouldn’t think about it too hard. Or at all. Very little of it makes a whole lot of sense. The plot doesn’t. A fair bit of the physics related dialogue doesn’t. But I like it. And if you don’t think about it too much you might like it as well.

As bonkers as it is, Young Einstein does have a colloquial charm. John Howard hams it up fantastically as Preston Preston in what I’d be willing to call one of his best and funniest roles. The idea that everyone would give so much of a fuck about putting bubbles into beer that the scientific community would give out a Nobel Prize for the effort is so bloody Australian it was probably born in New Zealand. Once he gets out of Tasmania, Yahoo’s young Einstein manages to mix the traditional Aussie stereotype of the self-reliant bushman out of his depth in the big city with the broader stereotype of socially-oblivious genius more easily than you’d expect. The plot might not make any fucking sense, but the fact that everyone seems to rather like the kid does.

Thing is, I can’t bring myself to recommend this film to anyone. It took me a little bit to decide why, mind you, but I can’t. Not to an Aussie audience, not to a foreign audience. The problem is it hasn’t aged well.

So much of the humour is, essentially, a piss-take of what people from outside Australia thought the country was like. Weird puppet Tasmanian devils that can take bites out of metal shovels, wallabies hopping around the Sydney Uni campus and (as mentioned above) indicating that a trip from Tassie to Sydney would require hopping on a train in the red centre. Thing is this may have been how people viewed us nearly thirty years ago but other people have done a better job of having a go at these stereotypes since then, and (if nothing else) the number of Australians traveling around the world (yours truly included) and people who have travelled to Oz has dispelled a lot of the more ridiculous of the myths made fun of in Young Einstein. A fair few of the jokes are winks and nudges at the Australian audience going “how funny is it that dumb-arse foreigners think this is what we were like!” Now we’d just point out that the rest of the world just thinks we’re a bunch of drunken, sports-mad brawlers with a talent for killing spiders and sharks in between smashing back tinnies.

As a result a lot of the humour falls flat. This isn’t helped by the fact that some of the more noticeable cultural references aren’t all that recognisable (I might know that a shot of Einstein riding a horse down a steep slope is a reference to The Man from Snowy River but I doubt that any of my siblings would).

Honestly mate I watched this film for nostalgia purposes. I remember watching this film as a kid. There’s this point at the end where everything’s about to explode and everyone’s losing their shit. Einstein, calm as you like, takes a bite out of an apple and says “Just a moment Marie, I’m having an idea.” I love that calm thoughtfulness. The problem with the rest of the film might be that it’s too goofy. Everything from the high-pitched inflection of the narration to the costuming to the sound effects is played for the easiest kinds of laughs. But this one line, played perfectly straight, eating an apple, it embodies my own sense of humour and how I try and handle a stressful situation. Funny what sticks with you.

So yeah, I like this movie. Is it great? Not really. Should you watch it? Probably not. Hell, I wouldn’t even recommend a rewatch if you’ve seen it before. But if you do, remember to take it for what it is. It’s a relic of what we all thought you thought about us back in the day, true or not. And it’s a bit of clean, stupid fun.

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