BRAIN DONORS

(1992)
With John Turturro, Bob Nelson, Mel Smith, Nancy Marchand, John Savident, George De La Pena, Spike Alexander, Juli Donald
Directed by Dennis Dugan
Reviewed by JB

I want to assure you we've been doctors for many many floors now!      David Zucker, brother Jerry and Jim Abrahams were responsible together and separately for a particular genre of comedy in the 1980's and '90s, the scattershot, gag a minute spoof comedy.  The idea was to fill a film with so many gags that the audience wouldn't have time to sort out the good ones from the bad.  The best of these films, such as AIRPLANE and the THE NAKED GUN, are now thought of as modern-day comedy classics.  The worst of these films are best forgotten.  Then there is BRAIN DONORS, a film produced by the Zucker Brothers that got lost in the shuffle. Paramount was ready to promote it heavily, but when the Zuckers left the studio, it was dumped into theaters quickly and then withdrawn just as quickly.  

     BRAIN DONORS (a horrible title more suited to a horror film) was the Zuckers' sincere remake of the Marx Brothers A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, complete with a trio of zanies, a rich dowager, and two young lovers.  Rather than attempt to actually recreate Groucho, Harpo and Chico, as sometimes has been done on stage, the Zuckers simply invented three new characters loosely based on the original trio.  John Turturro plays Roland T. Flakfizer, an ambulance-chasing lawyer (literally) who attempts to make a living by wooing and fleecing a rich widow.  Bob Nelson is the often silent Jaques, her gardener, and Mel Smith is an immigrant Cockney cab driver who becomes the manager of an up-and-coming ballet star.  These three characters run around like madmen for an hour and a half, causing trouble, cracking jokes and helping the two young lover achieve success in the ballet world.

    Your enjoyment of this film may depend on how much you can take of an overbearing, manic John Turturro as the Grouchoesque Flakfizer.  Sadly, too many of his lines rely on crude sexual innuendo, but he has so many jokes, you're bound to find some of them amusing.  The best of them would have fit Groucho perfectly, such as "Someday you'll have my children. In fact, they're outside in the car if you want them" or his answer to the boastful dancer who brags that his ballet shoes are in the Louvre in Paris: "Big deal - last year I left a raincoat in Cleveland."  And although we never get one of those dialogue scenes where time stops for three minutes as Groucho and Chico run verbal rings around each other to no avail, there are plenty of rapid-fire exchanges that bring back memories of the Marxes, the Stooges and Abbott and Costello:

    "And that spells 'cash' with a capital..."
    "K!"
    "You should go back to school."
    "I hated teaching!"

You can't make an actor out of clay!     Bob Nelson and Mel Smith ably fill the roles that would have gone to Harpo and Chico, with Nelson, a standup comic with a talent for sight gags, often stealing the show. Many of the gags are lifted from the Marxes, sometimes with variations. The film even begins with Bob Nelson doing Harpo's alarm clock smashing gag from OPERA, with the twist of Nelson then sweeping the broken clock into a drawer and retrieving a brand new one from the drawer beneath.  Although there is a nod to A DAY AT THE RACES with the three leads pretending to be doctors, the resemblance to OPERA is near-complete, with the trio winding up at their lowest point (in jail, as in A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA) before storming back, invading the high society function (a ballet in place of the Marx's opera) and replacing the smarmy villain with the supposedly charming newcomer.  It worked better in 1935, when audiences were supposed to care about the plot. Unfortunately, the two young lovers are even more forgettable than any pair you can think of from the Marx Brothers films, and certainly don't have the charm of Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle from OPERA.  By the same token, Nancy Marchand, a wonderful actress, is merely passable as the Margaret Dumont-like Mrs. Oglethorpe.

     It is rare that a movie is both underrated and overrated.  Because BRAIN DONORS was virtual unknown and unseen when first released, some fans, discovering it on video, declared it one of the funniest comedies ever.  It isn't.  Other see it as a poor mishmash that trashes the memory of the great comedy teams gone by.  It isn't.  It's a heartfelt, wacky little whirlwind of a comedy that has many bright moments, many dull ones, and a handful of unforgettable gags. You could do worse. 3 - JB

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