Depending on the mood you’re in, The Man With Two Brains will either be the dumbest movie you ever saw or you’ll be laughing so much that you’ll need to rewind some scenes a few times just to take them in and make sure your eyes were functioning properly. Of course, the truth is the film actually slides between both ends of that particular scale and pretty much doesn’t care whether you get every joke it throws at you.
That was pretty much the template for most of Steve Martin’s comedies back in the day before he settled into those more mundane and family friendly big box office reliable flicks that make some of his older fans cringe because they can see he’s just collecting a better paycheck rather than doing the comedy (or music, as the man can play a mean banjo!) he probably wants to.
Teaming up once again with comic legend and director Carl Reiner, the film is packed to the roof and beyond with sight gags, puns, good and awful jokes and a nice sci-fi vibe that the actor and director exploit with some intentionally low-budget sets and special effects. If you were to take the plot of this one, dump the stupid stuff and add in an evil corporation side plot, you’d probably have a very decent modern horror film. Then again, not getting to see Martin as Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr (and yes, that pronunciation gets joked to death here) and his unique method of brain surgery would be quite a loss.
After accidentally running her over with his car, Hfuhruhurr uses his surgical skills to save Dolores Benedict (Kathleen Turner) a gold-digging vixen who marries for money and manages to kill off her wealthy spouses by basically frustrating them to death. Naturally, the good doctor falls head over heels for her, they marry and Delores starts off with the DNS attacks, coming up with all sorts of medical excuses not to consummate their wedding vows. On their Vienna honeymoon, Dr. H runs into the nutty Dr. Necessiter (David Warner), who tells him of his revolutionary technique of storing brains in glass jars.
Before you can say “Now, don’t you dare fall in love with a female brain!”, Doc H. does just that, as he’s able to telepathically communicate with Anne, one of Necessiter’s subjects. Head over heels (again) he’s soon forgetting about his annoying wife for time spent that glass jar. Of course, she finds out about this and sets her sights on getting rid of Anne. She gets found out and kicked to the curb by the doc, which leaves him and Anne at peace until Dr. Necessiter informs Hfuhruhurr that brains in jars tend not to live too long – Anne is a special case (and yep, that’s Sissy Spacek doing that lovely voice).
The H-man struggles with a few body options (a gorilla, a hooker with an awful-sounding voice), but thanks to the Elevator Killer (Merv Griffin!) stalking the city, Delores is later killed and it’s decided to transplant Anne’s brain into her body. There’s a crazy chase, the surgery and a fall off the couch funny sequence where Hfuhruhurr gets nearly electrocuted and sent into the machinery (look for a video game version of him for a few seconds and that’s where you may lose it completely), which sends him into a coma until the somewhat happy ending with a twist.
Yes, it’s a “shut up and watch it” film along with a healthy dose of “don’t even try to make sense of this at all”, but everything clicks in that way weird comedies tend to. Not every joke works, but they come so fast and the performances are all strong enough that even the worst of the bad jokes should bring a smile to your face. As for a companion piece if you need one? Well, The Jerk is always a winner in my book, but I’ll say give 1981’s Pennies From Heaven a shot if you’ve never seen it. It’s a completely different turn for Martin in the form of a great, bleak musical drama based on Dennis Potter’s amazing BBC TV drama. That one’s a future RFoTW, by the way…