The Man with Two Brains

October 4, 2012

Steve Martin is, of course, one of the great men of our time. But the poor guy has not found his place in the cinema, not yet. Other comics are working well in movies not tailored for them as star vehicles: Robin Williams made a respectable Garp and is now acting for Paul Mazursky, and Eddie Murphy has fallen in with zippy young talents like Walter Hill and John Landis.

Martin has shown some adventurousness: any actor taking the role he took in that curiosity called Pennies from Heaven cannot be called cowardly. Stupid, maybe, but not cowardly. The Jerk was spottily funny, and only because of Martin’s ability to sustain his goon persona; Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, while affectionate and mostly likable, became almost oppressive toward the end—you worried so about how they were going to get in and out of all those film clips and still tie up the loose ends, it got nerve-wracking.

The Man with Two Brains is a return to a more straightforward narrative form—that’s assuming your idea of a straightforward narrative goes something like this: conniving woman (Kathleen Turner, from Body Heat) throws herself in front of a car driven by a rich brain surgeon (Steve) as a means of snaring him. He saves her life by using his innovative “Screw-Top” technique of brain repair; but when he sews her skull back into place, he sows the seeds of his unhappiness.

He starts to fall for her even before she’s conscious, which, as it turns out, is when she’s at her sweetest. The doctor soon learns that physical beauty is only as deep as the first epidermal layer, and that true meaningfulness springs form a meeting of minds. Soon after, he goes to Vienna and meets a very nice mind, and for a while he is truly the man with two brains. Lubitsch it’s not, but Steve’s latest romp, despite trying to tie up too many loose ends in its second half, is pretty darned funny.

First published in The Informer, May 1983

This doesn’t quite convey how much of a Steve Martin fan I was back then; his TV appearances and record albums set such a high standard that his early movie stuff seemed disappointing (although many people seem to love The Jerk, especially if they caught it at a young age).

All of Me

August 9, 2011

All of Me is a pleasant surprise—a thoroughly charming little comedy that possesses enough sweetness and genuine hilarity to resurrect the flagging film careers of Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin.

The idea for the film is not too promising. Rich old lady (Tomlin), about to die, contracts a swami (Richard Libertini) to arrange the transmigration of her soul into a young, healthy body (Victoria Tennant).

Blundering in is an estate lawyer (Steve Martin) with problems of his own: his upcoming partnership depends on how he handles a divorce trial—with his boss (Dana Elcar) as defendant. Not only that, Martin is engaged to the boss’s daughter (Madolyn Smith) who wants Martin to quit his nightly noodling with a jazz band and settle down to serious things.

Slight hitch: When Tomlin dies, and her soul flits off in search of a resting place, the first available repository is Martin. And that’s where she takes up residence, controlling approximately half his movements and thoughts.

I admit, this could be sitcom material of the most tired variety. But once you go with the supernatural gimmick, the movie becomes very easy to like. There’s an old-fashioned quality at play here—in its sophisticated setting, it is almost a throwback to The Philadelphia Story brand of comedy, with a touch of Topper thrown in. But it also carries a crackling sarcasm that is strictly ’80s—and somehow, it makes the combination work.

At the beginning, Martin is an opportunist who’s compromised his beliefs; Tomlin is a starchy old maid who dislikes everything but money. The idea of the film is that they both learn the value of life only after they have to share time with each other at unusually close quarters.

This nice little message never gets in the way of the utterly agreeable goings-on. Much of the middle of the film is taken up with Martin’s reactions to having the unmistakably feminine Tomlin express herself with his body. Good comic set-piece: the divorce trial.

In the courtroom, Tomlin takes over, and has to improvise mannish actions. So we’re watching a man, Steve Martin, acting like a woman who’s trying to act like a man. The way Martin plays it, it’s funny.

In fact, this is Steve Martin’s best performance. The physical humor is nimbly executed, and his timing is on the button. It’s a particular pleasure to see him hit his stride after seeming to wander through his last few pictures.

In her first scenes, Tomlin plays the crusty old invalid by the book, but she starts doing subtle things later one. During the double occupancy of Martin’s body, we can see her reflected in mirrors and hear her voice-overs. Real poignancy seeps into her performance, and her dance with Martin at the end of the film is joyous.

It’s all the more joyous because the moment has been honestly earned. This isn’t one of those comedies that cheat at every corner. Due credit, then, to director Carl Reiner, whose earlier collaborations with Steve Martin, including The Jerk and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, ranged from the choppy to the experimental.

Oddly enough, All of Me might very well have taken the title of their previous film together: The Man with Two Brains. Perhaps they can be accused of being preoccupied with schizophrenia; but I wouldn’t care if their next movie were a comic version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—as long as it was as likable as All of Me.

First published in the Herald, September 1984

And, once again, by “schizophrenic” I actually meant “multiple personality.” A good film and a decided improvement over the previous Martin-Reiners, however much I might treasure the individual gags from those movies. In a way, the pairing of Tomlin and Martin makes sense, as both performers are meticulous and ultra-prepared in their approach to comedy; the styles mesh. But nothing in Martin’s movie career has matched the highs of his stand-up, as delightful as some of his movies have been.