The brilliance of ‘The Man with Two Brains’

Those who know me well know there’s a special place in my heart for Steve Martin’s 1983 comedy “The Man with Two Brains.” It was directed by the great Carl Reiner and written by Martin, Reiner and George Gipe. But even with names like that behind it, it’s rarely the first film that comes to mind when thinking of their work. In fact, some of the more casual Martin/Reiner fans may have never seen it at all, which is a crime that should be remedied right now. (It’s available on multiple premium streaming sites. Go ahead, I’ll wait.)

OK, since we’re all caught up, here’s what makes this movie so fantastic. It’s part love story, part mystery, part science fiction, but entirely absurdist humor. Any one of those genres on its own from that team would be worth watching, but this one combines them all in a laughs-per-minute ratio that’s nearly impossible to beat.

The story centers on a famous and newly widowed neurosurgeon, Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr (Martin), whose last name, as we learn quickly, is pronounced exactly the way it’s spelled. While mourning the recent death of his wife he meets the conniving, manipulative and beautiful Dolores Benedict (played by a then still very feminine and sexy Kathleen Turner) by way of a traffic accident. Then, after also having to perform her lifesaving “cranial screw-top” brain surgery, the doctor falls in love with her during her recovery. They’re wed shortly thereafter, thus beginning Hfuhruhurr’s frustration over his new wife’s unwillingness to consummate the marriage.

He’s sympathetic at first. “When a woman who’s just had major brain surgery tells you she’s got a headache, you’ve got to listen,” Hfuhruhurr tells his colleague. Truthfully, Dolores is just stringing him along, as she’s done to several men in the past. Her only interest in the doctor is his money and attractive house staff, whom she’s sleeping with behind his back. But when Hfuhruhurr can take it no more, he suggests they travel to Vienna for a proper honeymoon, as well as to attend a neurosurgery conference.

While in Austria, Hfuhruhurr finds out the dreaded “elevator serial killer” is on the loose and also meets fellow brain surgeon, Dr. Alfred Necessiter (essayed by a wonderfully comedic David Warner). It’s while touring Dr. Necessiter’s dungeon/laboratory/condo that our hero encounters the real love of his life – the thinking, speaking, singing and living-in-a-jar brain of Anne Uumellmahaye (an uncredited and fabulous voiceover performance by Sissy Spacek). Dr. Necessiter, it turns out, is working on a procedure to keep the brains of the deceased alive long enough to transfer them (sans traditional surgery, mind you) into healthy new bodies.

The more casual Martin/Reiner fans may have never seen it, which is a crime that should be remedied right now.

I won’t say any more about the plot of the movie since this isn’t meant to be a detailed synopsis, but rather a look at what makes this film so great, and question why it’s never gotten the love and attention it so richly deserves.

“The Man with Two Brains” was the third collaboration in four years between Steve Martin and Carl Reiner, and the second between them and writer, George Gipe. (Gipe also co-wrote 1982’s “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” and sadly, but in true comedy nerd fashion, died in 1986 from a bee sting.) The first feature that Martin and Reiner worked on was, of course, 1979’s “The Jerk.” I certainly don’t need to tell you how successful and beloved that movie is, or how it’s widely considered one of the forefathers of modern absurdist comedies.

Now, the middle film, the aforementioned “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (also available to stream, if you’ve never seen it), wasn’t a commercial success either. But, tonally, it’s markedly different from “The Jerk” and “The Man with Two Brains.” That film, a black-and-white noir parody, was, to my knowledge, the first ever (if not the only) to seamlessly intercut scenes from actual old noir features with the current action; executed so perfectly, one might think they’d resurrected Humphrey Bogart just to be a day player.

So what was so different about “The Man with Two Brains” that it only made one-seventh what “The Jerk” raked in at the box office? They both had about the same level of hit-or-miss love from the critics of the day. (Don’t be fooled by the high “fresh ratings” each movie currently has on, which are based on mostly recent reviews. Isn’t it funny how, decades later, and after an enormously successful career, an actor’s films that were originally reviewed by the New York Times as “rather jumbled”, or considered “schoolboy pastiche” by the Philadelphia Inquirer are often now revered as “hilarious and underrated”?) Maybe the marketing strategy was flawed? Maybe they underestimated the staggering drawing power of Bernadette Peters? I couldn’t say.

What I can say is this movie is really funny. It’s well written, well acted and well directed. A golden trifecta most films never come close to. Steve Martin has a way of delivering goofball lines that in a lesser actor’s hands would come off as drivel. All the sight gags work and never feel forced, and the running gags never get old. It’s completely watchable from whatever point you tune in, making it one of the few films I’ll always flip to when it’s on TV, and stick with all the way to the end.

I’m thrilled we now live in a world where streaming movies have become (for many, at least) so easy and accepted, that for fewer than six dollars, you could watch a Martin/Reiner double feature of “The Man with Two Brains” and “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.” The former of which, I believe, has never truly gotten its due as the great comedy it is. In fact, Reiner shared a similar sentiment. “Man with Two Brains with Steve Martin popped up on TV last nite,” he tweeted on Friday. “I laughed so hard, one would think I had nothing to do with it.” Talk about modesty.

I’ve always counted “The Man with Two Brains” as one of my all-time favorite comedies. Even with dozens of viewings under my belt, it still never fails to make me laugh. I’m very glad to know it has the same effect on its now 91-year-old co-writer/director. And, to that end, since Mr. Reiner seems to only be getting sharper with age, I hope the ingenious Dr. Hfuhruhurr’s wishes come true. After all, he “can envision a day when the brains of brilliant men can be kept alive in the bodies of dumb people.”

Well, here’s to the brilliant Steve Martin and Carl Reiner living forever.