One of life’s small pleasures is that when you fall in love with Steve Martin in his prime, there’s more than just The Jerk to watch. While there’s a reason that particular Carl Reiner-Steve Martin collaboration has entered into classic status, it’s not like their other films together are awful disappointments. This is especially true of The Man with Two Brains, a film that - while quieter and more narratively outlandish than The Jerk - retains that film’s extremely high achievement as a delivery system for rapid-fire, usually successful jokes.
The Man with Two Brains’ plot is pretty simple and has little to do with its success as a comedy. Martin plays a recently-widowed brain surgeon with the pretty easy to pronounce last name Hfuhruhurr. When he comes across recently (very recently) widow Dolores Benedict, he falls instantly in love, which isn’t hard to swallow since she’s played by Kathleen Turner, also in her prime. Unfortunately, Benedict has no intention of sleeping with Hfuhruhurr and instead plans on killing him for his money. This really bums Hfuhruhurr out.
But then the most amazing thing happens, and you won't believe it! Mad scientist David Warner shows Hfuhruhurr (I keep writing it almost as a dare to myself) his amazing brain collection, all of which he intends to transport into gorilla bodies. Hfuhruhurr discovers an amazing psychic connection to one of them, a pretty brain with the equally easy to pronounce last name Uumellmahaye. The two fall in love, which puts Hfuhruhurr on a mission to find her a body. It should surprise no one that he’s able to put the brain in his hot but evil wife’s noggin. After she is killed by Merv Griffin. And also that the brain gains a ton of weight in her new body and no longer looks like Kathleen Turner when they finally get to have the sex. Anyone who watches movies should be able to predict all that.
Like The Jerk, and like a lot of Steve Martin’s early comedy, the premise behind most of The Man with Two Brains’ jokes revolves around stupidity executed with extreme cleverness. Martin plays a very different character, however, which means the source of this stupidity isn’t as organic. Therefore, the film plays much more with farce-level jokes. This is a highly comic reality, susceptible to whatever bending Martin and Reiner deem necessary for a laugh. As a result, we get stuff like fourth-wall breaking jokes about onscreen subtitles, many instances of Steve Martin walking through castle walls that are inexplicably made out of paper, and a couple great operation room running gags - one where The Lone Ranger and Tonto repeatedly join other the doctors watching Hfuhruhurr work, and another that involves a very persistent and pesky cat walking over the patients. There’s one amazing, but also very tiny bit where an operating Hfufruhurr barks a list of very tense orders to his nurses, one of which includes “Wipe some sweat on my lip.” How do you not love that?
This sort of reality-bending for comedy isn’t as intrusive as you’d think since this is technically a science fiction film about a talking brain. It fits the tone without going totally ZAZ with its farce. The film is slight and focused totally on comedy, but it’s not as narratively empty as a Naked Gun movie, either.
It’s also surprisingly dirty. I wonder how many people saw this as kids and were surprised to find such nudity and finger sucking. (When discussing his lack of sex with a colleague, Martin delivers the perfect line “I’ll have you know that in the finger sucking department I am quite satisfied!") There really isn’t all that much nudity from an adult perspective, but the way it’s dropped in makes it feel like one of those accidental boner classics like The Lady in Red or Just One of the Guys.
As far as mind games go, our big theme this month, The Man with Two Brains qualifies on two levels. One, the guy falls in love with a literal mind. And two, Kathleen Turner constantly manipulates him emotionally with literal mind games. I’m not sure either fall under the umbrella of what this theme intended, but that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with a little real life farce whenever the opportunity arises.