Steve Martin’s Only Sci-Fi Outing is One of His All-Time Greats

This one doesn’t quite qualify as hard sci-fi.

Written by Jon O'Brien
Warner Bros.
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Steve Martin’s performance style, particularly in his ‘80s prime, was often so zany he only needed the slightest of premises to bounce off. Man tries to get home for Thanksgiving (Planes, Trains and Automobiles). Man has family problems (Parenthood). Man has exceptionally large nose (Roxanne). Maybe that’s why, in a career spanning more than 50 years and just as many movies, he only has one live-action sci-fi credit to his name. However, The Man with Two Brains proves he understood the genre.

Following The Jerk and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid but preceding All of Me, the third of four collaborations between Martin and director Carl Reiner is their funniest. Packed with absurdist wordplay, deadpan gags, and slapstick humor, the mad scientist spoof is up there with The Naked Gun and Young Frankenstein, with the latter an obvious inspiration given its laugh-a-minute pacing.

Martin stars as Michael Hfuhruhurr, a doctor whose screwtop approach to brain surgery has made him both the toast of the medical world and a raging egotist. In fact, he’s busy extolling his own virtues to a reporter when he accidentally runs over, then saves the life of, the woman who will change his world.

Dolores Benedict (Kathleen Turner, expertly skewering the femme fatale persona she mastered in Body Heat two years earlier) has a history of marrying men for their money. “I get so excited when you get angry,” she tells her former husband moments before his fatal heart attack. “It makes me feel so much closer to the reading of the will.” And while recovering from her injuries, Dolores quickly makes the man who caused them her next victim.

Steve Martin’s Michael meets the love of his life.

Warner Bros.

Their choice of honeymoon destination, however, puts them both in danger, as Vienna is the city where the Elevator Killer is carrying out his reign of terror. And while attending a medical conference to display his pioneering work, Michael is ambushed by Alfred Necessiter (David Warners), a scientist who’s capitalizing on the sudden influx of brains for madcap experiments by keeping them alive in jars before they’re transferred to new human hosts.

It’s here where The Man with Two Brains doubles down on its ridiculousness to uproarious effect. Although Michael is appalled by Alfred’s lack of ethics (“If the murder of 12 innocent people can help save one human life, it will have been worth it,” is his hilariously warped justification), he’s also intrigued. Somehow as spacious and spooky as Frankenstein’s lair, Alfred’s TARDIS-like condo boasts prototypes such as a handsy gorilla and a talking brain (voiced by Sissy Spacek) with another vowel-heavy name, Anne Uumellmahaye.

Just when you think things couldn’t get any more surreal, Anne starts pushing Dolores out of the picture. See the rowboat rendezvous in which Michael adorns his new love in a straw hat and rubber lips while declaring her “the most complete woman I've ever known.” Martin plays this strange telepathic romance completely straight, resisting any temptation to wink to the audience. And once Dolores discovers she’s not the only two-timer in her marriage, her vengeful attempt to cook Anne in the oven proves she sees her as a genuine threat.

Kathleen Turner in gold-digging femme fatale mode.

Warner Bros.

Despite its obvious commercial pedigree, the film isn’t afraid to go dark. Michael becomes so desperate to procure Anne a host before her brain dies that he’s positively gleeful upon stumbling across a lifeless car accident victim and nearly chokes her when she regains consciousness. A trip to the nearest red-light district proves equally unfruitful, as his conscience prevents him from killing a helium-voiced prostitute with a willingness to please her clients that borders on a death wish. And you’ll never see a certain legendary talk show host in the same way again once the serial killer’s identity is revealed.

The increasingly unhinged plot brings plenty of laughs, although the biggest are often complete non-sequiturs. The tabloid articles Michael has pinned to his inner jacket (“Dolly Parton wants to have my baby”), for example. Or when the Austrian police subject Michael to a roadside sobriety test that involves juggling oranges, tap dancing, and singing the “Catalina Magdalena Lupensteiner Wallabeiner” song. Like all the great rapid-fire comedies, the misfired gags are soon replaced by ones that land.

Admittedly, and perhaps inevitably for a broad comedy celebrating its 40th anniversary, The Man with Two Brains can be a product of its time. None more so than when a surgeon (Re-Animator's Jeffrey Combs) carries out some unnecessary pubic grooming on an unconscious Dolores, a scene played entirely for laughs.

The world’s most prominent screwtop brain surgeon.

Warner Bros.

Then there’s the jarring flurry of racial slurs the latter unleashes during her final tirade. And while the heavy prosthetics used for Anne’s big reveal are intended to convey that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” the film can’t stop itself from wrapping everything up with a groan-worthy fat joke. For the most part, though, it pushes the boundaries without straying into tedious.

The Man with Two Brains is often ignored when discussing Martin’s career greats. But while he undoubtedly went on to deliver more nuanced work, it shows him at his consistently funniest and most committed. Just watch how he throws himself into the human pinball machine during the chaotic finale, one of several inspired bits of physical comedy. It’s a shame he’s since given sci-fi such a wide berth, but at least he gave us one classic.

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