Directed by Carl Reiner
“Into the mud, Scum Queen!”
This is a weird one, in that the case suggests it’s a completely vanilla disc, but once you get past the classic “You wouldn’t…” anti-piracy advert (first Late Review to feature that!), the main menu gives you the very special extra feature – trailer for the James Dean Collection.
Genuinely have no idea what that’s about, presumably a Warner Brothers anniversary thing, but such an odd partnership with this movie.
Other than that, there’s nowt.
Why Did I Get This?
Not sure, really. Growing up in the nineties, I knew Steve Martin as the guy from The Three Amigos and those Father Of The Bride movies which kept getting repeated on the BBC, but was aware he had a very successful comedy history. I think I might’ve read a book by or about him, and I probably picked this up out of curiosity as it’s widely regarded as one of his funniest movies.
Looking back now, I still love Steve Martin, but I’m always a little cautious as to just how zany his performances might be – as discussed in the Late Review of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, my whimsy tolerance depends on my mood, and the same goes for my zaniness levels, if I’m honest.
If nothing else, it’s an interesting companion piece to Man With The Screaming Brain, though they’re very different movies…
The Late Review
As always, the Late Review will feature points from the movie that could be considered spoilers. If that’s not your bag, scroll down to the next heading!
Steve Martin plays world-renowned neurosurgeon Dr Michael Hfuhruhurr (it’s pronounced just the way it’s spelled), inventor of the zip-lock screw-top brain surgery, who pines for his late wife but falls for scheming beauty Dolores Benedict (Kathleen Turner)… before becoming infatuated with a new woman, whose face he’s never seen.
First thing’s first, The Man With Two Brains is a gloriously silly love-letter to fifties science fiction B-movies and a showcase of Martin’s physical comedy and – I don’t care for this word – wackiest of performances. Well, maybe second-wackiest next to The Jerk.
My first thoughts as the opening credits rolled were – ‘blimey, I didn’t even remember Kathleen Turner was in this, let alone David Warner and James bloody Cromwell!’. I sort of felt I knew the film a little through a couple of the famous gags (and from recently reading Nick de Semlyen’s excellent Wild And Crazy Guys), but honestly, these were surprises to me.
The story, daft as it is, pretty much runs on rails – all the characters are introduced, lined up, and toppled together with maximum efficiency – which is a good job, as it really rattles along. Within the first eight minutes we’ve had a magazine interview outlining Martin’s character (and characteristics), Turner trying to induce a heart attack in her sugar daddy, a car accident, a brilliant verbal battle with a child and two successful brain surgeries. At 86 minutes, there’s no time to waste, but there’s not a moment goes by where you’re missing a gag.
Some of the throwaway jokes are great too – Dr Hfuhruhurr walking into surgery and discovering his scrubs have bunny ears, “they’re not assholes, it’s pronounced azaleas!”, “you may murmur all you like”, might not read like much on paper (or indeed on this post), but in the hands of Steve Martin and Carl Reiner, they are damned funny.
Likewise, the running gags about the pronunciation of his surname, his elaborate drink orders, the TARDIS-like apartment that’s essentially a mad scientist’s castle, and during each surgery scene, while Martin is barking instructions to his medical staff, he’ll calmly say “get that cat out of here”, as if an operating theatre is the most natural place for a kitten to be – they’re all supremely silly, but genuinely funny each time they get trotted out.
Martin, of course, is the star, and the entire film is built around his best work. His physicality is incredible, playing ultra-confident surgeon one minute, sexually frustrated-to-distraction cuckold the next, he’s certainly something of a caricature, but never less than watchable. Even watching him leap three feet to the ground from a stuck elevator, his body moves like a cartoon character, and there’s a very good chance David Schwimmer and Matthew Perry took a few notes from some of his elaborate hand gestures for some of their bigger Friends moments.
Alright, so maybe you’ll never really 100% buy into the concept of a man falling in love with a disembodied brain, but in the cartoony universe (cartooniverse?), created by Martin and Reiner, it’s easy enough to go along with it and enjoy the ride. Even when he sticks a pair of wax lips to her jar in an effort to make her more human, it makes sense in this silly little world.
As for Kathleen Turner, my knowledge of her work is pretty minimal if I’m honest, but she is incredibly game in this. Insanely beautiful too, and relishing the opportunity to really chew on the scenery as the gold-digging woman who loves torturing her husbands until she can profit from their untimely deaths.
It feels wrong and reductive to focus on her beauty, but she looks incredible in this. Apparently, she wanted the opportunity to play silly as well as beautiful, and this performance has that in spades – she gleefully goes toe to toe with Martin and never comes up short.
She even has her own running gags too, with finger sucking and lustily eyeing up every red-blooded male she sees, and her delivery of “oh, my balls”, during a fight in the third act made me laugh out loud. Not so much the string of inappropriate racial slurs she levelled at Martin during the same fight, but one suspects they were always deemed hugely inappropriate and therein lies the humour. I hope that’s it, anyway.
Dolores withholding sex from her husband until he’s totally and utterly pent up with frustration gets some good laughs, but the tables are turned when the couple travel to Austria for a conference where Dr Hfuhruhurr meets a fellow brain surgeon, Dr Necessiter (David Warner), who reveals a new method he has developed for transferring the thoughts and personalities of disembodied brains into host bodies.
I knew Warner mainly from his turn in The Omen, and he gives one of the more understated performances in the movie (admittedly, not that difficult considering some of the showy, cartoony shenanigans going on around him), and he mainly deadpans his way through scenes with Martin but again, he holds his own and is quite satisfied to accept the film he’s in. Even when he’s reacting to sincerely-delivered lines like “I could never fuck a gorilla”.
As the movie progresses and Hfuhruhurr’s obsession with Brain 21 – also known as Anne Uumellmahaye (pronounced just as it’s spelled, of course) – deepens, he schemes to have her mind transplanted into another body. This leads to a great scene of him looking at corpses in a local morgue as if shopping for a car, then shopping for sex workers looking for a body fit to host his beloved’s mind. In the former scene, it’s Martin’s umming and aahing about the corpses that gets the laugh, while in the latter, it’s purely physical (and takes place outside an unsavoury lodging called the Seadie Hotel – wahey!), but it’s all brilliantly done.
By the time he settles on a sex worker to murder (chosen for her terrific body – including some classic 1980s gratuitous nudity), but bottles out (due to her terrifically annoying voice), Dolores is out to kill him too, but she soon falls victim to The Elevator Killer – a serial killer we’ve heard rumours about throughout the film, who murders his victims by injecting them in the arse with drain cleaner so their brains die last.
For me, this was the only thread of the story that sat a little uneven, but again, in context with the rest of the flick, I guess it makes perfect sense. By the time the culprit has been revealed it doesn’t matter who it is (and to UK audiences in 1983, let alone now, I suspect many would be none the wiser once the big reveal happened).
Still, it gets us where we need to be – Martin racing to Warner’s apartment with Turner’s body and Spacek’s brain, aiming to fuse the ladies together and gain his perfect wife. On the journey there’s an amazing gag as Hfuhruhurr is pulled by the Austrian police for speeding, and has to prove he isn’t drunk by carrying out a bunch of circus skills – the scene made even funnier by the cop realising the driver is American so ordering the subtitles to be switched off “so there’s more room down there”, and topped by Martin laughing “my God, your drunk tests are hard!”. It’s a perfect gag for this film – knowing, silly and brilliantly written.
David Warner has a whale of a time acting drunk and a little disinterested as Martin rockets around his lab during the procedure. The cops burst in, Hfuhruhurr goes out a window, and we cut to some time later and he’s recovering from a coma as his wife arrives – turns out, of course, it’s Dolores’ body with Uumellmahaye’s mind.
I say it’s Dolores’ body, but Uumellmahaye reveals she’s a compulsive eater, so Turner is wearing prosthetics and a fat suit – again, one imagines the writers of Friends had seen this movie once or twice and ‘fat Monica’ was another idea that stuck.
The credits roll with a disclaimer that Merv Griffin was never brought to justice for his crimes as the Elevator Killer, and a great 1980s electro score too, somewhere between John Carpenter’s theme from Escape From New York and Brad Fiedel’s score for The Terminator.
Thoughts On The Film
In Wild And Crazy Guys, Nick De Semlyen refers to this movie as “atomic powered lunacy”, and in fairness, I don’t think there’s a better way of putting it – it’s gloriously daft, revels in how bonkers it is, and almost 40 years down the line, still generates honest-to-God belly laughs.
I hadn’t realised until reading up on this that the voice of Brain 21 was provided by Sissy Spacek, which was cool, but I’m still struggling to get over the sight of LA Confidential’s James Cromwell wearing lederhosen and speaking with a silly Austrian accent as a goofy Austrian estate agent.
It’s easy enough to see why this is considered one of Martin’s best films, it’s literally laugh a minute and then some, but I was surprised to read it didn’t do well at all at the box office. In the UK, it didn’t even get a cinema release and went straight to video, which seems mad considering how well thought of it has become.
It’s a bit of a cliché to say this couldn’t get made now, but I can’t imagine anyone would be able to pull it off if they tried. Don’t get me wrong, I really don’t want to see anyone else try, but as a mental exercise, it’s an interesting thought who might be able to manage it. Answers on a postcard, I guess.
Sure, some elements of it have dated better than others, but The Man With Two Brains was always intended to be a bit of a throwback to older films – it helps that it’s funny as hell and embraces its silliness with every frame of film.
Highly recommended. If you don’t laugh at least once, you might already be in a jar.