The Steve Martin vehicle The Man with Two Brains (1983) falls victim to such aforementioned dangers. It begins flashily, filled with an overabundance of genuinely hearty laughs that introduce promise. But as it progresses does it inescapably lose its footing, mostly because it aims to satirize the crazed mad scientist horror movies of the 1950s and ‘60s (1953’s Donovan’s Brain is frequently mentioned), but doesn’t do so efficiently, and because it increasingly commits itself to its unconvincingly bonkers plot and decides its initially inspired laughs are going to have to come second fiddle. When a joke functions properly, it soars. But when one doesn’t — and that’s recurring — we’re hit with one of those polite smiles that smacks us in the face when a line’s decent but nevertheless underwhelms. I smiled politely for much of The Man with Two Brains.
At least Martin’s dedicated, and one can’t help but love him when he’s doing the absurdist Steve Martin © shtick wherein he says and does ridiculous things but does it all with the deadpan — and volume — of a Shakespearean actor. Here, he’s Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr, a legendary (and pompous) brain surgeon renowned for creating the “cranial screw-top,” which works exactly how it sounds. Though he’s proud of his breakthrough, his life wears a slight emptiness as the result of his wife’s recent death. His love of his job cannot overcome the void left by her absence.
So he considers himself lucky when he literally runs into Dolores Benedict (an excellent Kathleen Turner), a femme fatale who collides with his car after fleeing a crime scene. Despite her being unconscious upon their first meeting, Hfuhruhurr deems her an angel, and manages to save her life thanks to a miracle surgery. Little does he know that Benedict is a total vamp, an exaggeration of the dangerous beauties who seduced and then ruined men in all those World War II-era film noir melodramas.
When we first meet her, she’s served her affluent, elderly husband’s prized pet angel fish for dinner (informing the man of what he enjoyed eating once his stomach settles) and then, in a rage, throws his beloved cat at his priceless Renoir painting. She only bumped into Hfuhruhurr’s car because her husband died of a heart attack after such terrors. She’s basically the character Theresa Russell played in Black Widow (1987), only this time all the evils are done with a wink.
The scheming, sexually aggressive Benedict sees opportunity in Hfuhruhurr — the money she’ll gain from her now-dead husband’s estate will only last her so long — and so she decides that she’ll go through the motions of her usual routine with him. She’ll seduce, marry, and finally kill the man. Then she’ll move on.
But then the movie devolves into hokum involving Hfuhruhurr meeting a mad scientist (David Warner) who’s discovered how to keep living brains housed in jars kudos to a clever formula. Once we get to that point, the film stops worrying so much about the almost factory-line proficiency of the jokes and decides that it’s going to be a riff on off-brand H.P. Lovecraft. Hfuhruhurr falls in love with one of the brains (who miraculously is able to speak, and is, more miraculously, voiced by an uncredited Sissy Spacek), and is eventually able to use Benedict as a victim of a brain transfer. When the end credits roll, we aren't so sure if the movie we just watched was a comedy or an eccentric romance.
There are a couple decent gags late in the film (my favorite being the revelation that Merv Griffin is a serial killer and is having a hard time with the fact that he’s now too famous to lurk effectively), but nothing ever comes close to its first half-hour, which is just the right balance of loony and veritably funny. The Man with Two Brains isn’t a totally successful comedy. But Martin is predictably great — he isn’t one of our most beloved comedic actors for nothing — and Turner, always an underrated screen comedienne, is wonderful. But when a screenplay’s written by dream team Carl Reiner, Martin, and George Gipe, one hopes for something knee-slapping rather than so-so. C+
1 Hr., 30 Mins.
The Man with Two Brains September 14, 2017
joke-a-minute comedy is a dangerous thing. In theory is it a good idea to etch out a brand new, unapologetically silly sight or physical gag every few seconds to keep the audience rolling. But unless you’re the Zucker brothers partnering with Jim Abrahams circa 1980, it’s inexorable that it be impossible to keep up such a fast pace for the length of a feature. Once you have to cater to a developing storyline, keeping the punchlines sharpened is not always so feasible.