The Man with Two Brains (1983)

Posted: January 25, 2014 in Movie Review
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The Man with Two Brains (1983)

Director: Carl Reiner

Starring: Steve Martin, Kathleen Turner, David Warner, Sissy Spacek

Comedy is a tricky art form. It is hard to gauge what the audience will find funny, and what will cause them to simply fold their arms and roll their eyes. Topical humor also runs into problems when time marches on and causes the subject matter to become outdated. You also have to know what kind of audience you are trying to reach. Generally, with a movie, you want to reach as wide an audience as possible, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Once again, the humor runs the risk of dating itself, with the youth in the crowd scratching their heads when they are meant to be holding their sides in laughter. Yet, as hit and miss as it can be, comedy isn’t brain surgery.

Michael Hfuhruhurr (Steve Martin)… yes, the pronunciation of his bizzare last name is one of the film’s running gags… is a brain surgeon who has come up with a unique and rather cartoonish way of performing the delicate procedure: removing and replacing the top of the skull via a “screw-top” method. This bypasses the need to shave the patient’s head. His newest patient, Dolores Benedict, also happens to be the woman he ran over with his car. Before long, they marry. What Michael doesn’t know, but he’ll soon discover, is that Dolores is a gold digger who’ll get in bed with just about every man except her husband. Trying his best to win his new wife’s affection, Michael takes Dolores on a honeymoon to Vienna, where he will also be attending a conference demonstrating his brain surgery technique. There, he meets Dr. Necessiter (David Warner), whose own work has extended into transplanting a brain into a recently deceased human body. He hasn’t been successful as of yet, but it seems he’s had many opportunities to test his theories, as there’s a killer on the loose. All of the brains that Dr. Necessiter has in his lab are said to be still alive even though they are disembodied, and one in particular proves it when she (voice of Sissy Spacek) establishes telepathic communication with Michael.

With a title that sounds like it comes from an old 1950’s sci-fi movie, or a more recent B-movie that would almost certainly star Bruce Campbell, this 1983 comedy has not aged particularly well. Much of the jokes are far too obvious to be funny, and the plot is equally easy to decipher. The outcome is pre-determined almost from the moment we are introduced to the movie’s main characters. I’m not even sure what audience “The Man with Two Brains” is meant for. Was director Carl Reiner looking to entertain those of his own generation, or was everyone supposed to “get it”? Some things about the movie do work very well. For instance, I love Dr. Necessiter’s laboratory, merely a condo made to look like part of an old castle with wallpaper and plywood. Sissy Spacek is terrific as the telepathic voice of the brain. The revelation of the Window Cleaner Killer’s identity is completely out of the blue, but deserves at least a chuckle provided that you have some familiarity with the person. The ending, although mostly predictable, does offer one moment of unintentional humor due to its almost prescient nature concerning the future status of one of the actors.

The movies of Steve Martin are something I find I’m very particular about. When he’s playing the straight man to another actor’s antics, it really clicks for me, as in “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” When he’s the one acting like a goofball, I feel like he’s trying too hard. That’s why I’m one of the few people on planet Earth for whom “The Jerk” isn’t a complete laugh riot. “The Man with Two Brains” meets it somewhere in the middle. He plays his role here mostly straight, sometimes straying off into goofiness (at one point, becoming a human pinball). It’s actually Kathleen Turner who gets the most laughs as his adulterous, murderous bride. “The Man with Two Brains” isn’t bad… it’s just written that way.

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