THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS"
After achieving box office success with his first starring role in 1979's The Jerk, which grossed $73 million, Steve Martin went on to make a number of films that were both critical and commercial disappointments. Martin was ahead of his time, though. Pennies From Heaven, released in 1981 to a gross of $9 million, is now viewed as, at worst, an ambitious disappointment, and at best a misunderstood near-masterpiece. 1982's Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid ($18 million) is today considered by many to be an inventive comedy classic. And 1983's The Man With Two Brains ($10 million) has amassed a cult following. It's also now available, for the first time ever in widescreen, from Warner Archive.
In this spoof of science-fiction flicks, Martin plays esteemed brain surgeon Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr. (Roger Ebert famously hated that joke.) Hfuhruhurr has invented a patented “screw-top” method of brain surgery. One day, he saves the life of the gorgeous Dolores Benedict (Kathleen Turner), then marries her, unaware that she is a scheming gold digger who simply wants his fortune. While repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempting to consummate the marriage, Hfuhruhurr meets Dr. Alfred Necessiter (David Warner), a scientist who has found a way to keep brains alive and functioning in jars. It's possible that he is the notorious “Elevator Killer” who has been murdering people for their brains. Slowly becoming aware that he's got two very toxic people in his life, Hfuhruhurr sets out to make things right. In the meantime, he becomes smitten with one of the brains Necessiter keeps around. Despite not having a body, it seems a better fit for him than Dolores.
The Man With Two Brains, which Martin co-wrote with George Gipe and director Carl Reiner, is simultaneously very Martin-esque and non-Martin-esque. On one hand, it's filled with the comedian's trademark absurd humor. For example, when Hfuhruhurr gets pulled over for a sobriety check, he not only has to walk a straight line, he has to do it on his hands, then juggle while dancing. There's also plenty of cinematic skewering, as the movie pokes knowing fun at some of the conventions of sci-fi thrillers from the '50s and '60s, with bizarre scientific discoveries and moments of intentionally overwrought acting. Physical humor is abundant as well. Who can forget the famous line Into the mud, Scum Queen! which Hfuhruhurr wails as he tosses Dolores into a huge puddle?
On the other hand, this is the rare R-rated Steve Martin picture. His humor, more often than not, was PG-13. Edgy, but not necessarily raunchy. It's somewhat strange to see him here doing oral sex jokes and appearing, ever so briefly, to consider the implications of fornicating with a gorilla, among other things. Of course, not every joke lands, but a lot of them do. The Man With Two Brains perhaps doesn't have the rapid-fire rhythm of The Jerk. Nonetheless, it's got some real zingers related to bad marriages, professional egotism, and the frequent cheesiness of old science-fiction movies.
The Man With Two Brains came at a time when Martin was still, to some degree, figuring out how to translate his comic persona to the screen. He'd perfect it a year later when, starting with All of Me, he had a hot streak of films that also included Three Amigos, Roxanne, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Even if this isn't his best role or his best film, it holds up pretty well, offering a glimpse of a comic genius at a wonderfully experimental stage of his career.
The Man With Two Brains looks and sounds great on Warner Archive's new manufactured-on-demand DVD. It's great to have it available widescreen. To order a copy, please visit the Warner Archive website.
( out of four)
The Man With Two Brains is rated R for language and sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 33 minutes.
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