Apr 6, 2011

24FPS Top 100: No. 62

DIR: Carl Reiner

It's a challenge writing these summaries about comedy films, because the temptation is to simply write 'because it's fucking hilarious' and leave it at that. But I'll resist the temptation, both because that's not tremendously informative, and because there is more than that to The Man with Two Brains.

Of Steve Martin's early work, The Jerk seems to be the most celebrated, while better and more consistent films like Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, and this comic masterpiece seem to go comparatively unnoticed. With his stage act and these early films, Martin became one of the great proponents of 'silly'. The comedy isn't sophisticated, indeed it's decidedly lowbrow, though largely without, except where appropriate to the characters, the streak of cruelty that makes today's lowbrow comedy so depressing.

The film is about a widowed brain surgeon (Martin), who unwittingly marries a black widow (Kathleen Turner) after running her over, but saving her life with his surgical skills. On honeymoon he meets a mad scientist (David Warner) who can keep disembodied brains alive in jars, discovering that he can communicate telepathically with one of the brains (voice of Sissy Spacek), he falls in love.

It is wonderfully, deliriously, endlessly silly. Martin is at his absolute manic best as the preposterously named Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr. He's great at the physical comedy; especially funny in the scenes in which a very frustrated Hfuhruhurr, having not yet had sex with his new wife, is so on edge that he all but destroys his bosses office, which show off a very different sort of clowning to the loose limbed style that is more typical. Martin is also a wonderfully adept verbal comic, the precision of his delivery selling every joke beautifully (just listen to the triumph in his voice when - in one of the film's most beautiful absurdities - he tells a four year old that she has made a mistaken diagnosis, and the investment in his reading of his wife's favourite poem; Pointy Birds).

This is not, though, the Steve Martin show. Kathleen Turner puts a very funny spin on her malevolent femme fatale of Body Heat, while David Warner makes for the perfect mad scientist and Paul Benedict puts in a droll turn as Warner's Butler. It's all brilliantly drawn together by director Carl Reiner, who, along with Martin as co-screenwriter, provides this film a much stronger through line than their other collaborations, while never neglecting to have something funny going on.

For me though the thing that really makes The Man With Two Brains the success it is is the fact that there is more to it than silliness. As odd as it sounds, the love story between Martin as Hfuhruhurr and Sissy Spacek (who is uncredited, but with that unmistakable voice hardly needs to be named) as a disembodied brain named Anne Uumellmahaye, is really sweet and touching as well as providing stand out comic moments like the boat trip during which Hfuhruhurr sticks some wax lips on Anne's jar so he can kiss her. Spacek manages to create a genuinely lovable character as Anne, and that lifts the film beyond mere silliness.

That said, silliness is a noble art, and few films have contributed as much or as definitively to it as this one, personally I find it funnier and more enjoyable every time I see it, and the set pieces never fail to make me roar with laughter. A truly underrated classic.


Dolores: The Complete Poems of John Lillison, England's greatest one-armed poet.
Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr: He wrote 'In Dillman's Grove' and 'Pointy Birds.' O pointy birds, o pointy pointy, anoint my head, anointy-nointy.

Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr: You. You're the elevator killer. Merv Griffin.
Merv Griffin: Yeah.
Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr: Why?
Merv Griffin: I don't know. I've always just loved to kill. I really enjoyed it. But then I got famous, and - it's just too hard for me. And so many witnesses. I mean, *everybody* recognized me. I couldn't even lurk anymore. I'd hear, "Who's that lurking over there? Isn't that Merv Griffin?" So I came to Europe to kill. And it's really worked out very well for me.

Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr: The only time we doctors should accept death is when it's caused by our own incompetence.
Dr. Necessiter: Nonsense. If the murder of twelve innocent people can help save one human life, it will have been worth it.

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