Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 18, 2014)
Depressing thought of the day: I’m old enough remember when audiences knew Steve Martin as a comedian instead of as an actor. I think it was right around the time of 1983's The Man With Two Brains that the dominant opinion started to change, mainly because I think Martin had ceased to perform stand-up by that point. The more movies he made, the quicker memories of the old "wild and crazy guy" faded.
This change didn't happen because Brains lit up box offices, as I think it fizzled theatrically. I won't try to convince you that Brains delivers a forgotten gem, because it doesn’t. However, it does offer a moderate amount of fun and it remains one of Martin's better early efforts.
World-famous brain scientist Michael Hfuhruhurr (Martin) still mourns his late wife Rebecca but he moves on when he runs into – literally – recently widowed babe Dolores Benedict (Kathleen Turner). Dr. Hfuhruhurr hits Dolores with his car and causes a brain injury that he then corrects.
Dr. Hfuhruhurr falls for Dolores, and the conniving gold-digger sees Michael as another easy mark. She seduces him and the pair marry, but she claims continual headaches to escape the need to consummate the relationship.
When Dr. Hfuhruhurr gets the chance to attend a conference in Austria, he accepts as he thinks the trip will loosen up Dolores. It doesn’t, but Michael develops a new relationship when he meets Anne Uumellmahaye – or part of her, at least. Anne exists as a disembodied brain who communicates with Michael through telepathy. This leads to a curious love triangle.
Ironically, the worst thing about Brains stems from the fact that it starts out extremely well. The first 15 minutes or so are frankly hilarious, as the movie provides one great gag after another.
And then it hits a wall. Don't ask me to pinpoint exactly when this happens, because I can't, but it definitely occurs. The rest of the film remains entertaining, and a few good jokes pop up from time to time, but the overall product seems a little flat. Still, “flat with a few strong spots” beats most comedies, as the vast majority of "humorous" movies are lucky to eke out a single laugh, much less a bunch of them.
When it succeeds, Brains does so largely due to the presence of Martin, who was still getting his feet wet in films as of 1983. He'd made more than a few by that point but his persona still seemed bound to the stand-up comic of the 1970s, despite an attempt in 1981's dramatic musical Pennies from Heaven to alter that. The change would occur - aided by the success of 1984’s All of Me - but Martin still hadn't made that leap in 1983.
Despite the hit or miss nature of the gags in Brains, Martin stays consistently watchable and entertaining, and he's backed by an able supporting cast. Kathleen Turner proves surprisingly adept at comedy in her role as evil wife Dolores. She's able to go from sinister to sweet and back again with ease and she provides a fun presence.
Also good is David Warner as Dr. Necessiter, an Austrian scientist, and the cast even features personal favorite James Cromwell in a goofy turn as a realtor. By the way, the film includes two other noted participants, but I won't reveal their identities; to do so would spoil some of the fun.
And Brains does give us a reasonable amount of enjoyment. It sputters at times but still comes with enough charm and wit to make it likable.