The Man With Two Brains, released in 1983, was the third collaboration (out of four) between director Carl Reiner and star Steve Martin. Like the first film, The Jerk, it piles on the jokes in a fast-and-furious manner, not caring if the individual jokes are often what would be considered groaners. And, like The Jerk, it succeeds in getting laughs more often than not. Martin’s delivery of peculiar lines is handled with his trademark casualness and the occasional deadpan, such that it’s easy for a joke to sneak by the audience if they’re looking for an obvious punchline (for example, the early acknowledgement that Martin’s character has just performed a completely unnecessary brain surgery on someone.)
More and more patients today are having elective lobotomies.
(You’ve suspected it for years, admit it.)
Martin stars as Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr; it’s pronounced the way it’s spelled, which is of course one of the running gags of the film. Michael is a world-renowned neurosurgeon, and inventor of the cranial screw-top technique of brain surgery, which allows a quicker recovery for patients and doesn’t require the head to be shaved. He is also a grieving widower. Kathleen Turner co-stars as Dolores, a gold-digging femme fatale who marries men for their money and then tries to stress them into heart attacks. Turner is clearly having fun vamping it up, and she and Steve Martin play well off of each other. Their paths cross rather literally when Hfuhruhurr strikes her with his car, causing injuries that require her to undergo brain surgery.
Nowadays there’s probably a dating site that specializes in this.
The two have a whirlwind romance and are soon married. And just as Michael starts to find out what sort of person Dolores really is, he has an encounter with Austrian doctor Alfred Necessiter (David Warner) at a conference. Necessiter is also a neurosurgeon, and also has avant-garde ideas for the profession… ideas that are fairly out there even by Hfuhruhurr’s standards. Necessiter believes that he can perfect the means to transfer the thought patterns from one brain to another, giving people an extended chance at life (at the expense of someone else’s), as long as their brain has not yet died. To facilitate his experiments, he has been having the local morgue send him the still-living brains of the victims of “the Elevator Killer”, kept alive in jars. And then Michael Hfuhruhurr discovers he has a telepathic link with one of the brains, belonging to Anne Uumellmahaye (voiced by Sissy Spacek). Dissatisfied with his second marriage, he starts to put a new plan into action.
The one significant weakness of the film is that it feels like it takes a while to get past the setup stages. Anne isn’t introduced until about halfway through the movie, and the mad science plan is pretty close to the end. Considering the title is The Man With Two Brains, a lot of the film is devoted to Michael’s increasing tension in his marriage, and even there we don’t see Dolores getting up to many comic antics; she’s just withholding sex. Despite this, the film still has a fairly high rate of laughs, especially when Steve Martin is interacting with David Warner — fans of kitschy old mad science films will find a lot to enjoy in this affectionate parody, even if the mad science itself is a relatively small part of the film.
Most of the humor is just pure silliness, but it works well because Steve Martin is very skilled at being silly without seeming silly. When he performs an excessively elaborate sobriety test, there’s not one hint from him that he’s making an effort at getting a laugh. Where a lot of comedians would mug for the camera or ham it up for the laugh, Martin plays it straight and gets an even bigger laugh by making the absurd seem natural. With the gag-a-minute nature of the movie, it adds up to a funny film, if perhaps not on the level of The Jerk.