Steve Martin made his share of bad movies, but sometimes he could pull one out through sheer force of comedic will. Such was The Man with Two Brains, a joint effort with the great Carl Reiner that proves more silly than funny. Somehow, some way its star makes us laugh in spite of our better judgment.
Martin plays a brilliant brain surgeon named Dr. Hfuhruhurr, a name the late Roger Ebert liked to cite as a sign of comedic desperation. Said Doctor is working on a way to transplant human brains from one body to another, a mission that grows more intense when he meets a nice young brain in a jar in his lab. Of course, he needs a body to put that bran into, and his bitch of a wife (Kathleen Turner) just happens to have one. Sweet sensitive mind in sex kitten shape? What could possibly go wrong?
It's a thin premise at best, but Reiner infuses it with plenty of Airplane!-style absurdity, as well as abject affection for old mad scientist movies of the 40s and 50s There's plenty of buzzing lab equipment and Things Man Was Not Meant to Know plopped down in the middle of the pratfalls and goofy dialogue. The Man with Two Brains seems to understand that it's on shaky ground, and that maybe one out of three of its jokes is going to work. So it shoots them at us so quickly that we hardly have time to register the duds before we're on to the next one. It even slips a few classic moments in there, as when Martin asks his late wife if it's a good idea to marry Turner, or the immortal opening of the poem "Pointy Birds." It's a near thing sometimes, but the chuckles come with a reasonable amount of regularity and a few flat-out belly laughs score some serious hits.
And while Reiner earns at least some of the credit for it, he would be completely at sea without Martin front and center. The actor hadn't yet left his Wild and Crazy Guy shtick behind him, and while future movies evinced a maturity that this one doesn't, you can't fault him for not going for broke here. Few actors can be this funny with this little to fall back on, but damned if he doesn't pull it off time and again. A manic stare, a crazed grin… all he needs is the smallest opening, and he'll make us his. The mad scientist routine makes a perfect fulcrum, matching the actor's innate intelligence with his terrific command of physical comedy. Turner chimes in with a game straight-man routine, but at the end of the day, this one belongs to the guy on the poster.
And in its own way, it's much sweeter than the summer comedies we've come to expect. There's little crudity or cruelty here, and while the humor evinces a certain cheekiness, it's not trying to shock us into laughter. We don't see that kind of comedy anymore, especially not in the summer season with a major star in the lead. The Man with Two Brains benefits from the overt nostalgia, both in its subject matter and in its gently mocking approach to the same. Martin and Reiner both rank among the smartest people in show business, and while no one would mistake this for high-minded comedy, it reflects their knowing approach to a little goofy fun. Immortal comedy definitely isn’t here, but your puss must be sour indeed to not finish the screening with a smile on your face.