Movie Rehab: Steve Martin's oddly underrated sci-fi/horror comedy 'The Man With Two Brains'
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?"
"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."
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.