Movie Rehab: Steve Martin’s oddly underrated sci-fi/horror comedy ‘The Man With Two Brains’

02.11.14 4 years ago 18 Comments

Warner Bros

It is the responsibility of the working film critic to not only offer opinion and context for the newest releases, but also to constantly champion and curate the films that matter, especially if they were misunderstood or poorly released or somehow handled badly the first time around.

Critics should take it upon themselves to rehabilitate the under-loved, to defend the wrongly-maligned, and rehab the films that need it; it is the only way film as a whole can be healthy.

“When I saw how slimy the human brain was, I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

Genre parody is a very tricky business.

In general, laughter and scares seem like the perfect combination, and when people get it right, it can make for a very appealing rollercoaster ride. One of the things that I love about the collaborations between Carl Reiner and Steve Martin is that they seemed determined not to repeat themselves. In some ways, they strike me as not unlike Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, guys with fairly different comic sensibilities who came together and created a group of movies that are unlike anything either of them did on their own. I can’t imagine “Blazing Saddles” or “The Producers” without Wilder, and I can’t imagine he would have had the same luck with any other director that he did with Brooks on “Young Frankenstein.” Martin and Reiner’s “The Jerk” seemed to be drawn largely from the persona Martin had already created, but “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” was a great, strange movie experiment that Reiner had to nail in terms of every single visual detail if the joke was going to work at all.

With “The Man With Two Brains,” the two of them took aim at the mad scientist genre, and they came up with something that can’t be called a direct parody of any one film. Instead, it creates a very distinct, very strange comedy world, and then it tells an original story within that comedy framework, one in which brains can survive and even communicate free of a body, and where a brilliant doctor can be dumbest than the dumbest of film noir dupes. Martin wasn’t a particularly dirty comic on his various albums, but “The Man With Two Brains” is brazenly R-rated, hilariously filthy, and the film feels like it could have only happened with the two of them working together.

Joel Goldsmith’s score at the start of the film sets a very definite tone. It goes from ominous to sweet to ominous again, and it doesn’t take long for the movie to set its various story threads in motion. We meet Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr (Martin) giving an interview in his car, and at the same time, we meet the gorgeous and openly evil Delores (Kathleen Turner), a trophy wife who takes great delight in tormenting her rich husband. Their latest fight spills out into the street, where Hfuhruhurr accidentally slams into her with is car. Thankfully, he’s the inventor of a radical new brain surgery, and he’s the exact right person to save her life.

There’s a joke in that early scene that has always made me cackle, and it does a nice job of establishing how flexible and silly this reality is. There’s a little girl (Mya Akerling) who is standing there when the accident happens, and Martin runs over to talk to her, determined to save this mysterious and beautiful woman. “Little girl,” he begins.

“Yessir?” She can’t be more than six or seven years old.

“I want you to do something very important, all right?”

“Okay.”

“I want you to run home and I want you to call the E.R. at North Bank General Hospital, 932-1000. Tell them to set up O.R. 6 immediately and contact anesthesiologist Isadora Turek, 472-2112, beep 12. Have them send an ambulance with a paramedic crew, light IV, D5NW-KVO. Got it?”

Taking one big breath at the beginning, she rattles of the entire thing flawlessly. “E.R. North Bank General Hospital, 932-1000. Setup O.R. 6. Contact anesthesiologist Isadora Turek 472-2112, beep 12. Ambulance with paramedics and light IV, D5NW KVO.”

“That’s good.”

Before she walks away, she shakes her head. “Sounds like a subdural hematoma to me.”

“Oh, it does, does it?” he asks, immediately outraged. “Well, it’s not your job to diagnose!”

“But I thought…”

“You thought, you thought. Just go!” As she runs off, he keeps ranting. “Three years of nursery school and you think you know it all. Well, you’re still wet behind the ears. It’s NOT a subdural hematoma. It’s epidural! Ha!” And then finally, to himself, “Goddamn, that makes me mad.”

I love the entire exchange. I love how serious the little girl is. I love the timing of her “But I thought…” I love how even in this moment, Dr. Hfuhruhurr’s ego is center stage. In the next moment, we see Hfuhruhurr getting ready to operate, and someone’s added rabbit ears to his scrubs. Hfuhruhurr catches sight of himself in the mirror as he walks by and angrily snatches the ears off. It’s a refutation of the “wild and crazy guy” Steve, him making sure the audience knows that is not who they’re going to be seeing in the film.

Young Jeffrey Combs makes an appearance as an intern who gets caught shaving Turner inappropriately before surgery, and even in this early role, he has the creepy cranked up to high. The film takes it as a given that Turner is pretty much the hottest thing on wheels, and this was just one year after she made such a seismic impression on audiences in “Body Heat.” Her performance is knowing and evil and hilarious, and I think this film, as much as any other, hooked me. She knows what impact she’s having on Martin from the moment they meet, and her aggressive, even carnivorous sexuality made a hell of an impression on me in my formative years.

Martin makes repeated references in this movie to the poetry of John Lillison, “England’s greatest one-armed poet,” and I love that he ended up calling back tone of the poems in his later film “L.A. Story.” The poetry is awful, but it’s subtle-awful, and I love that this film can have big broad obvious jokes, it has very subtle character jokes, it features big physical gags, sly verbal wit. That combination of comic approaches means that even if one gag doesn’t land for you, another will. There are so many great performance touches. Watch the first time Delores kisses Hfuhruhurr. It’s perhaps the single most aggressive tongue move ever. Then watch the way she starts to put him off physically as soon as they are married.

I like Martin’s smart idiot character, a guy who is quite good at something particular, but who is a complete moron in other regards. When they pull up at his house after she’s released from the hospital, just married, she sees the gardener and his wife on the front steps, and she grimaces. “What are those assholes doing on the porch?”

He laughs and says, “Those aren’t assholes. It’s pronounced ‘azaleas.'” He is so desperate for sex from this woman that he completely closes his eyes to her faults, a necessary ingredient in a film like this. Even in something this surreal, Reiner, Martin, and co-writer George Gipe keep the emphasis on moving the preposterous plot along. Martin’s frustration gets more and more pronounced and Turner just keeps turning up the heat.

Eventually, they head to Austria for a delayed honeymoon, which Hfuhruhurr hopes will kickstart things between them. This allows the film to shift into second gear, introducing the subplot of Vienna’s Elevator Killer and also bringing Hfuhruhurr into contact with Dr. Alfred Necessiter (David Warner), a scientist whose own work in brain research has leapt past Hfuhruhurr’s. He approaches Hfuhruhurr about a collaboration, and this introduces what may well be the strangest complication in any romantic comedy in history.

Dr. Hfuhruhurr falls in love with a disembodied voice, that of Anne Uumellmahaye, played by Sissy Spacek, and anyone who loved “Her” last year should check out the courtship between Hfuhruhurr and Uumellmahaye, a man in love with a brain in a jar, wishing he could have the body of his evil wife and the beautiful mind and soul of Anne. Like many of cinema’s greatest mad scientists, Hfuhruhurr doesn’t start off mad. He’s a genuinely gifted surgeon, but he’s terribly lonely since the death of his wife, and Delores sees him as the weak link he is.

I love the production design by Mark Mansbridge and Polly Platt. The home of Dr. Alfred Necessiter alone is both creepy and very funny. The film has a bright gorgeous palette, and Michael Chapman doesn’t make this look like the standard studio comedy of the time. Even in the midst of an expository scene like the first combination of Hfuhruhurr and Necessiter, there are some wonderfully daffy touches, like the mixed drink that Necessiter serves Hfuhruhurr, or the way the neighbors end up piping in about being able to hear their ethical argument, which Warner counters by screaming at her about how he can always hear her TV.

Martin, more than many stand-up comics, has always had an interesting darker edge as an actor. There’s a keen intelligence that is obvious even when he’s playing a totally dummy, and he manages to find ways to shade the preposterous Hfuhruhurr over the course of the film, even allowing for how silly the film is. His strong suit has always been playing romantic material, and when he finally steered directly into those impulses for films like “Roxanne” and “L.A. Story,” they were very special indeed. Watch the scene in this film where he talks to the bobble-head Barbie doll that reminds him of his dead wife, telling her what a mess he’s made of things, and he starts singing to her. It’s a super-goofy song, but there’s something heartbreaking about the way he gets caught up in it before realizing he can hear a voice singing along. That sadness is an essential part of Martin’s appeal. Even something like “The Jerk” is good at making Martin a figure deserving of our pity, and then using that emotion to wring laughs out of us that are more complex.

Even in the home stretch, Reiner keeps introducing new supporting cast and new types of jokes. The great Paul Benedict shows up as Necessiter’s butler, and he gets to ladle on the snide. James Cromwell also plays a very funny smaller role as an Austrian realtor. I love Martin’s shift into mad scientist mode and the various near-victims of his homicidal need to find Anne a body. Randy Brooks in particular contributes not only some jaw-dropping ’80s nudity but a painfully funny line reading of “I don’t mind.”

The film builds to a deeply silly climax, and the way Hfuhruhurr finally solves his problem is a great bit of wish fulfillment. When the film was released in 1983, it made a grand total of about $12 million, a pretty crushing disappointment, and Reiner and Martin only made one more film together after this, the beautiful “All Of Me,” and I’m not shocked that this one had a hard time connecting. It’s such a weird hybrid of things, and it so completely refuses to play by any typical narrative rules. While you can see the influence of the enormous success of “Airplane!” and its rapid-fire delivery, this is another case where Reiner and Martin came up with something uniquely their own, and I wish Warner would restore the scenes that were cut after the theatrical release, and that they’d put this out in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio instead of the open-matte release that is the only DVD of it as of right now.

MOVIE REHAB: “Gladiator”
MOVIE REHAB: “Fearless”
MOVIE REHAB: “Casualties Of War”
MOVIE REHAB: “The Mosquito Coast”

When we return, the next film will be David O. Russell’s most maligned film, “I Heart Huckabees.”

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