Tag Archives: Carl Reiner

The Man with Two Brains (1983, Carl Reiner)

The Man with Two Brains does not age well. It’s a case study in not aging well, even more so because when the three writers—director Reiner, star Steve Martin, and George Gipe—can’t figure out how to do an ending so they just do an extended fat joke… well, it’s hard to continuing giving the film a pass. Not after a racial epithets joke, which the film doesn’t even realize is lazy.

Because it does recognize its easy jokes. There are a lot of easy, easy, easy jokes Brains wants to get away with and it usually is able to do it thanks to Martin or co-star Kathleen Turner, but the finale doesn’t use anyone well. In fact, it’s a call back to a completely different section of the film they probably don’t want to be recalling.

The movie’s got a really peculiar structure. The first act is about Martin falling for evil gold digger Turner (not knowing she’s an evil gold digger) and her refusing to consummate the relationship. So boss Peter Hobbs (who’s pleasantly sturdy and game for even the fail jokes) sends Martin off to Europe for a conference; a little continental seduction and so on.

In Europe, Martin meets mad scientist David Warner, who’s—oh, right. Martin’s the world’s premier brain surgeon. Anyway. He meets Warner, who’s a mad scientist who wants to transplant brains he’s been keeping alive thanks to hydroxychloroquine or something. Warner’s oddly disappointing in the film. I was expecting something from him and he never does anything. The film’s got problems with the supporting characters though; Warner’s butler, Paul Benedict, gets more personality than Warner in fewer scenes with less exposition. Reiner’s direction is… not great. He and Martin (and Gipe) are trying a lot of different things, some things are a lot less successful than others.

And even the big successes are often qualified. Like when Martin is prowling the streets to find a woman to murder so his soul mate—a disembodied brain voiced by Sissy Spacek—can find a new home. It’s all very complicated, with the brain stuff being Martin finally getting free of animate costars and getting to do his wild and crazy guy thing in the spotlight. It’s better when he does it opposite other cast, specifically Turner, who frequently can’t hold her femme fatale. Martin so funny she’s laughing. It’s brings Turner almost too much personality.

Back to that successful sequence—Martin lurking the streets of Vienna, looking for a woman to murder. All of a sudden the backlot shooting starts to work—Reiner and cinematographer Michael Chapman(!) shoot Two Brains like they’re trying to figure out how to not make it look like a sitcom but end up making it look more like one because of how they compensate. Like Joel Goldsmith’s ludicrously inappropriate synth score; it ups the zany so you don’t think too much about Martin’s premeditated murder scene and so on, but it’s also terrible. And doesn’t help the scene. Ever. In fact, it’s always actively hurting it.

Overall, Two Brains doesn’t have the pieces to succeed. The story’s not there. The plotting isn’t there. The pacing’s there. The direction’s not there. Martin and Turner do an excellent job doing absurd caricatures (at best, Martin does just mug occasionally), but it’s like no one’s curating the gags or even taking note of their successes. It’s got its ambitions just no idea when they realize.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Reiner; written by Reiner, Steve Martin, and George Gipe; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Bud Molin; music by Joel Goldsmith; production designer, Mark W. Mansbridge and Polly Platt; produced by William E. McEuen and David V. Picker; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Steve Martin (Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr), Kathleen Turner (Dolores Benedict), Sissy Spacek (Anne Uumellmahaye), David Warner (Dr. Alfred Necessiter), Peter Hobbs (Dr. Brandon), Randi Brooks (Fran), and Paul Benedict (Butler).


Summer School (1987, Carl Reiner)

There’s an almost magical competency to Summer School. It starts with the opening titles, which are expertly edited to showcase the eventual primary cast members. Not the adults–outside lead Mark Harmon–rather the students. There’s no audible dialogue, just a rock song playing, but there’s enough performance from the actors to give personality to their characters before they get introduced. It’s a magical competency because it’s not just Bud Molin’s editing or Reiner’s direction of the actors or Jeff Franklin’s screenplay–it’s unclear whose idea it was to go with this efficient introduction–but it prepares the viewer for what’s to come. It encourages sympathy to this cast of characters, something the film builds on for quite a while.

Molin’s editing is strong throughout the film, so I guess I’ll talk about he and Reiner first. There’s no gloss to Summer School. Reiner’s most complicated sequence, outside a gore scene where he relies heavily on the effects and Molin, is probably a fender bender. And most of it’s off screen. Instead, Reiner just showcases the actors. None of them are particularly great, but everyone’s likable. Even when their performances are a little thin–admittedly, Richard Steven Horvitz and Fabiana Udenio don’t exactly have the deepest characters–they’re still extremely affable, which is partly due to Franklin’s screenplay.

Summer School has five or six distinct sections. It follows a traditional three act narrative, but Franklin splits those acts. There’s the opening introduction to Harmon, where his gym teacher gets stuck teaching a remedial English class, where he meets Kirstie Alley, where he meets the class of misfits. That section segues into the goofball comedy aspect of the film, where they have madcap misadventures, before moving into the second act where things start to get a little more serious academically. As things get serious academically, then the screenplay treats the students more seriously personally. The film could have a completely natural structure–a six week summer school session with an exam at the end, but it isn’t until late into the second act when the exam becomes important to the narrative. It’s extremely well-plotted and Reiner has a handle on how to pace it all out.

Harmon’s more likable than good. He’s charming and endearing and really spry. It’s impossible to imagine the film without such a physical lead, even though that physicality isn’t necessary to the part. It’s an enthusiasm. Alley’s good as his love interest. She doesn’t have a lot to do but they have enough chemistry to get it through. Robin Thomas is a fantastic vice principal villain (and Alley’s boyfriend).

Of the students, Kelly Jo Minter and Shawnee Smith probably give the best performances. Courtney Thorne-Smith gets the most to do and she’s adequate. No one gets exactly enough because there’s not room in the film for it; they just need to be funny and likable. Dean Cameron and Gary Riley, for example, are funnier than they are good. Patrick Labyorteaux’s sturdy, ditto Ken Olandt.

There are some third act problems when Thomas becomes less of a goof villain and more of a threat, but the film brings it together for the finish. There’s also a strong Danny Elfman score.

Summer School doesn’t worry about being smart, it’s just smartly constructed.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Reiner; screenplay by Jeff Franklin, based on a story by Stuart Birnbaum, David Dashev and Franklin; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by Bud Molin; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, David L. Snyder; produced by Franklin, George Shapiro and Howard West; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Mark Harmon (Freddy Shoop), Kirstie Alley (Robin Bishop), Robin Thomas (Gills), Patrick Labyorteaux (Kevin Winchester), Courtney Thorne-Smith (Pam House), Dean Cameron (Francis ‘Chainsaw’ Gremp), Gary Riley (Dave Frazier), Kelly Jo Minter (Denise Green), Ken Olandt (Larry Kazamias), Shawnee Smith (Rhonda Altobello), Richard Steven Horvitz (Alan Eakian), Fabiana Udenio (Anna-Maria Mazarelli), Duane Davis (Jerome Watkins) and Francis X. McCarthy (Principal Kelban).


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The Jerk (1979, Carl Reiner)

“Classics.” In the sense, “oh, it’s a classic.” Possibly even, “it’s classic.” “Classic” is a lousy classification for film. It’s applied mostly as if it were a genre, with something like King Kong escaping to the sci-fi section, but A Night at the Opera absent from the comedy one.

The Jerk is considered a “classic” and I don’t quite get it. It’s occasionally funny, but mostly drags on. It’s poorly titled (according to IMDb, the working title was Easy Money, which is better), because The Jerk suggests… well, it suggests Steve Martin is playing a jerk. According to Oxford’s, a jerk is (in the informal) a contemptibly obnoxious person. The film gets the title from the colloquialism, “What do you think I am, some kind of a jerk or something?” Except, in that colloquialism jerk doesn’t mean obnoxious person, it means sap, dope, maybe patsy. I suppose they could have called any of those, but didn’t. Because The Jerk, starring Steve Martin in a bathrobe, looks like a movie you’d want to see. It looks like a funny movie.

The film’s structure is also particular. Bernadette Peters has almost no dialogue for the film’s last third or so. She’s around–both on screen and in the story–but she’s not doing anything. The film is so delineated into scenes, once she’s done, she has to stick around, but the film doesn’t have anything to do with her. The first half of the film has this deliberate pacing–lots of funny moments in amusing scenes. The scenes flow from one to the other, more on the comedic factor than any sort of dramatic one. It’s not extreme enough to be notable, but it creates a pleasant viewing experience. The second half of the film, which feels like someone checked his or her watch and got really worried about the running time, is hurried and almost all in summary or half-scene.

Steve Martin wrote the script with Carl Gottlieb, who’s the only guy to work on all of the first three Jaws films. I imagine the tight structure of the first half is from his hand, but it’s hard to blame the second act on either writer. Once director Carl Reiner shows up in a cameo, it’s apparent the film’s lost its footing. Most of Reiner’s filmography is Steve Martin films, so I guess they liked each other, but Reiner’s not bringing anything particular to the film. I just finished watching it an hour ago and nothing’s resonating. It’s all seeped away, except maybe the subtly touching relationship between Martin and his adopted brother, played by Dick Anthony Williams.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Reiner; screenplay by Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias, based on a story by Martin and Gottlieb; director of photography, Victor J. Kemper; edited by Bud Molin; music by Jack Elliot; production designer, Jack T. Collis; produced by William E. McEuen and David V. Picker; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (Navin R. Johnson), Bernadette Peters (Marie Kimble Johnson), Catlin Adams (Patty Bernstein), Mabel King (Mother), Richard Ward (Father), Dick Anthony Williams (Taj Jonson), Bill Macy (Stan Fox), M. Emmet Walsh (Madman) and Dick O’Neill (Frosty).