Tuesday, July 3, 2007

A Tale of Lame Ducks

Deep into TRANSFORMERS John Turturro suddenly turns up as a sort of secret government agent. At first I had the desire to stand up in the theater chanting “BARTON FINK! BARTON FINK!” but then I started to see what he was doing, or more to the point, began to wonder what the hell he was doing. Each of the actors in TRANSFORMERS seem to be off in their own movie and I think the one Turturro is in is the only one I’d actually want to see. But after a few moments I stopped thinking about Barton Fink and started thinking about another role he played which could have been an inspiration for his work here, that of Roland T. Flakfizer in the now forgotten 1992 comedy BRAIN DONORS.

Produced by the Zucker Brothers and directed by Dennis Dugan, BRAIN DONORS was filmed under the title LAME DUCKS and slated to come out in July of 1991. Paramount promotional materials for that summer even included the title, but the release never happened and the film wasn’t seen until the following April when it sneaked out quietly into theaters under the unfortunate title BRAIN DONORS. In spite of the fact that Paramount didn’t screen it for critics some of the reviews, including Janet Maslin in the New York Times, had a “Gee, this is actually kind of funny” tone to them, with the most praise going to Turturro. In its theatrical run the movie grossed less than a million dollars.

It’s written by Pat Proft, but buried in the end crawl is a “Suggested by…” credit attributing the source to the Marx Brothers’ 1935 classic A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. This has always seemed like a case of lawyers being a little too careful to me, since it’s pretty obvious that BRAIN DONORS isn’t quite a remake but is in fact an attempt at a full-on tribute to the Marx Brothers and their films, especially OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES.

At the time this film was shot Turturro had just completed the brilliant BARTON FINK so he winds up somewhat resembling that character. Here, he plays the Groucho equivalent and embraces his role with the vigor of someone who believes they were born to play this part. Mel Smith, the English comic who also directed RADIOLAND MURDERS and BEAN, is Rocco Melonchek, the Chico character, and stand-up comedian Bob Nelson plays Jacques, the Harpo surrogate. Nelson speaks but fittingly, his character seems just as content when he doesn’t. In the Margaret Dumont role is the late, great Nancy Marchand playing Lillian Oglethorpe, a character name made even better every time Turturro says it.

With a plot that is very similar to A NIGHT AT THE OPERA only with ballet inserted, the film makes every possible attempt to make the story as similar in tone to an old Marx Brothers movie as possible, with the obvious exception of no musical numbers. This even includes a boring male and female lead (Spike Alexander and Juliana Donald) who of course play the roles of the boring male and female lead. The guy is of course named Alan, which makes sense considering this is the Allan Jones part.

BRAIN DONORS works best in its first half hour with some interchanges that may be somebody baldly trying to emulate the sort of dialogue rhythms that were commonplace in these types of movies once upon a time (“A Flakfizer doesn't know the meaning of the word ‘No!’ We're also a little fuzzy on ‘panagglutinin’ and ‘viscosity.’”), but it still sometimes succeeds. On its protracted road to release BRAIN DONORS must have had some scenes cut since the entire film runs only 79 minutes—this includes the end crawl and a lengthy opening credits sequence done in claymation by Will Vinton. Still, the brief running time is fitting considering the type of film they are trying to emulate and it certainly never gets boring. By the time the movie gets to its big sabotage-the-opening-night climax, it may not come close to what was done best in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, but it still makes me laugh to this day. What can I say, throwing a giant toothbrush at a ballet dancer in the middle of a performance is funny.

I doubt that John Turturro gets asked about the film very much but even so his performance is a wildly energetic portrayal that in spirit correctly harkens back to an earlier era and is something he should be proud of. Watch it sometime as a second feature after BARTON FINK. I think the two movies would go well together.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Ah! It's great to see someone else who loves this criminally underrated film. You're right, this one would make a great half of double bill with BARTON FINK. It's weird that it took Adam Sandler, of all people, years later, to tap into John Turturro's goofball side again.

BRAIN DONORS has to be one of THE best homages to the Marx Brothers.