Friday, September 7, 2007

Brain Donors

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Slapstick Blog-A-Thon being coordinated by Thom Ryan at Film of the Year.

There’s a good reason why there have been so few attempts to copy the Marx Brothers. Not only did they do their own unique brand of anarchic, slapstick comedy so well, but it is also very hard to pull off so that what few attempts there have been failed miserably. That didn’t stop the Zucker brothers (of Airplane! and The Naked Gun fame) from trying in 1992 with the underrated film, Brain Donors. It was originally called Lame Ducks (a nice nod to the Marx Brothers) and Paramount Pictures, the studio that backed it, was gearing up to give it a huge promotional push. However, when the Zuckers left for another studio, Paramount decided to punish the film by withdrawing the publicity campaign, changing the title and pulling it from theaters after a brief run. It’s a shame because Brain Donors is an excellent example of a modern slapstick film.

The eye catching opening credits, rendered in Claymation (by Will Vinton no less), establish the film’s zany, free-wheeling attitude right away. In typical Marx Brothers fashion, pretentious high society types are taken down a notch. Lillian Oglethorpe (Nancy Marchand channeling Margaret Dumont) is a wealthy widow whose husband recently died. His final wish was to use half of his vast fortune to assemble a ballet company and find the best male dancer to front it. Enter attorney Roland T. Flakfizer (John Turturro), an ambulance chaser with his eyes on Oglethorpe’s money. Standing in his way is her snooty attorney (“As your trusted attorney,” he huffs pompously at one point, to which Roland replies, “You gonna use those words together?”) but once Roland teams up with Jacques (Bob Nelson as the Harpo surrogate) and Rocco (Mel Smith as the Chico archetype) much screwball insanity ensues.

Brain Donors turns into a riff on A Night at the Opera (1935) as the evil attorney convinces the conceited Volare (George De La Pena) to head the company while Roland and the boys get up-and-coming dancer, Alan Grant (Spike Alexander). In keeping with Marx Brothers tradition there is even a love story between a good-looking but bland couple that serves as a breather between manic comedic set pieces. Fans of the Marx Brothers can go through this film with a checklist of scenes and bits that were lifted from their films. As Chad Plambeck’s review points out, the emergency room scene is taken from A Day at the Races (1937) and the garden party is reminiscent of the one in Duck Soup (1933).

Brain Donors takes the slapstick film to absurd levels. One only has to look at the scene where Roland, Jacques and Rocco disrupt Volare’s performance at the ballet to see how this film employs the genre’s conventions so well. It starts off modestly as Roland stands in front of the orchestra pit offering a crazy play-by-play analysis of Volare’s performance. Pretty soon, they are throwing oversized toothbrushes and teddy bears at the egotistical dancer. Then, Jacques arrives on stage dressed as one of the ballerinas and proceeds to disrupt the performance by physically injecting himself into the proceedings. If that weren’t enough, Roland comes flying in on wires like some kind of demented Peter Pan only to be followed by Jacques, Rocco and Roland (still on wires) interrupting the performance for an impromptu game of basketball. As the scene continues, the humor gets more and more ridiculous.

John Turturro, known at the time for his intense roles (Five Corners and Do the Right Thing) is cast wonderfully against type as the Groucho Marx surrogate. Up until that point, only the Coen brothers had successfully tapped his comedic potential but not quite to the extent that he does in Brain Donors which allowed him to finally cut loose and show an unseen, wackier side. With his recent stint in Adam Sandler films (Mr. Deeds and Anger Management) one wonders if the comedian was a big fan of this film. It makes sense seeing as how Dennis Dugan, who directed Brain Donors, went on to direct Sandler in Happy Gilmore (1996) and Big Daddy (1999). Roland is, literally, an ambulance chasing lawyer. You have to admire the balls the filmmakers have for showing Turturro actually running after an ambulance. In the film he is still sporting his Barton Fink (1991) quaff — it’s almost as if Fink finally went completely insane somewhere in Hollywood. Turturro’s handling of a simple car accident that introduces his character is a wonderful bit of comedic timing as he motormouths his way through the scene, completely exploiting the situation.

Bob Nelson’s Jacques leads a kind of Pee-Wee Herman existence. This gives the filmmakers an excuse to employ all sorts of visual gags, including one where he takes a scrunched up table cloth and unfolds it to reveal a full breakfast setting. He is the anarchic, physical comedy portion of the three-man team while Mel Smith plays Rocco with just the right amount of surly charm. With Turturro they make a good team and the interplay between all three is excellent. Clearly, they look like they’re having a ball with the material and it feels as if they’ve been together as a comedy team for years.

And why not? Penned by Pat Proft (Bachelor Party, numerous Police Academy movies, and Hot Shots!), the script follows the Zucker brothers’ comedic philosophy of machine gun jokes: if you fire enough of them at the audience some are bound to work. Surprisingly, quite a few of them do (lines like, “These seats are dreadful! They’re facing the stage,” Roland tells an usher at the opera) and this is due in large part to how the dialogue is delivered, especially by Turturro who rarely seems to take a breath in the entire movie. He makes the film infinitely more watchable whenever he’s on-screen.

In the end, Brain Donors plays out like a Marx Brothers highlight reel but does so in an entertaining and engaging way. The film has gone on to enjoy a modest new life on home video and television with a small cult following. Fans of this underrated film can now finally enjoy it on DVD. Sadly, there are no extras. This is a shame — one would like to have seen an audio commentary by the filmmakers, but I guess the fact that it has even surfaced at all on DVD is a miracle.