By Owen Gleiberman
Updated December 23, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

The characters who babbled and flirted their way through Hollywood’s vintage screwball comedies were too smart for their own good. That was the whole joke: Their mouths were racing too fast to express the yearnings of their hearts. (Just think of the couples in It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby building verbal air castles out of sheer nonsense.) Fred Schepisi’s I.Q. would like to be part of that same goofy-sublime tradition. This is a love comedy so obsessed with brainpower that its guiding spirit is Albert Einstein — not the ghost of Albert Einstein, but the great fuzzy-wuzzy egghead himself, played by Walter Matthau in a gray fright wig and with a Germanic twinkle so campy-adorable that he reminded me of something you’d see at an airport gift shop.

Set in 1955, the movie is about how the legendary thinker attempts to spark a romance between his niece, Catherine (Meg Ryan), a beautiful and neurotically intellectual grad student, and Ed (Tim Robbins), the handsome young auto mechanic who has fallen for her. Shot in sun-dappled splendor at Princeton, I.Q. is a very friendly comedy, directed with Schepisi’s usual rhythmic assurance. Yet the movie falls oddly flat. The reason, I think, is that the script (by Andy Breckman and Michael Leeson), for all its coy references to overactive minds, never succeeds in actually putting one on screen.

Matthau’s Einstein is meant to be wise enough to understand that brains aren’t everything. That was probably true of the real Einstein, a notorious womanizer, but in the film he becomes a teddy-bear yenta whose idea of a good time is riding on the back of Ed’s motorcycle and shouting ”Wa-hooo!” Even worse, he’s been given a trio of cuddly professor colleagues who trail him around campus speaking in toy German accents and making cutesy-poo observations about the sexiness of atomic particles. (If this is genius, give me Jim Carrey.)

Einstein arranges to pass off the mechanic as a grease-monkey savant, having him deliver a paper on cold fusion. This causes a sensation in the physics community and — more important — a chemical reaction on the part of Catherine, who believes in love at first brain wave. Ryan and Robbins are both at their most appealing; they look at each other with a gaze that would melt ice cream. But the banter that should be the heart of the movie is earnest and soggy. What might have been a key source of comedy — the way Catherine’s insecurity expresses itself through intellect — becomes, instead, the occasion for a therapeutic message about self-esteem. And Robbins’ Ed hasn’t been given any ironically sharp edges; he’s just a big, softhearted hunk, a cookie-cutter Nice Guy. I.Q. is easy enough to sit through, but it’s all surface come-on-the romantic-comedy equivalent of a shallow young Hollywood star who puts on fake glasses so that it will look like he, too, has brains. C