May 30, 2005
There’s a good reason why there have been so few attempts to copy the Marx Brothers. Not only did they do it the best but their particular brand of humour is so hard to pull off and do it well that what few attempts there have been have failed miserably. That didn’t stop the Zucker brothers (of Airplane! and Naked Gun fame) from trying in 1992 with the underrated film, Brain Donors.
The eye catching opening credits, rendered in clay animation, establish the film’s zany, free-wheeling attitude right away. In typical Marx Brother fashion, the pretentious rich are taken down a notch. Lillian Oglethorpe (Marchand) is a high society widow who recently lost her very rich husband. His dying 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 (Turturro), an ambulance chaser with his eyes on the 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 he teams up with Jacques (Nelson as the Harpo surrogate) and Rocco (Smith as the Chico archetype) much screwball insanity ensues. The film then turns into a riff on A Night at the Opera (1935) as the evil attorney convinces the conceited Volare (De La Pena) to head the company while Roland and the boys get up-and-coming dancer, Alan Grant (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.
John Turturro, known more for his intense roles (Do the Right Thing, Mac) is cast wonderfully against type as the Groucho 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. Roland is, literally, an ambulance chasing lawyer. You have to admire the balls the filmmakers have for showing Turturro actually running after an ambulance. 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, Naked Gun), 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.
None. Not even a theatrical trailer.
In the end, Brain Donors plays out like a Marx Brothers highlight reel as it riffs on A Day at the Race, Duck Soup and Monkey Business to name a few but does so in an entertaining and engaging way. 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.