My college roommate was an interesting character…kind of short, John Lennon glasses, and long hair which he colored to match his bright purple high top sneakers. I haven’t seen or heard from him since the day we graduated, but I will always remember him for introducing me to this movie. He told me that I had to see this thing…it was a remake of The Marx Brothers film “A Night at the Opera.” My first reaction was…whoa there, you don’t do that! You can’t remake a Marx Brothers movie. It’d be like remaking “Psycho!” Well, we all know what happened there. But unlike that disaster…1992’s “Brain Donors” is a remake done right that far too many people have not seen.
The film is actually a loose remake, but it definitely captures the Marx Brothers style. John Turturro is in the Groucho role, an ambulance-chasing lawyer named Roland T. Flakfizer (a Groucho name if there ever was one). British actor Mel Smith (the albino from “The Princess Bride”) plays the Chico role, Rocco Melonchek, and Bob Nelson plays the Harpo role, Jacques. Oh, and we mustn’t forget the Margaret Dumont role, Lillian Oglethorpe (Nancy Marchand…who might as well be Dumont reincarnated).
As is the case with most Marx Brothers movies, the story really isn’t that important. It’s just there to string together a bunch of quick-paced dialogue and gags. As the film begins, the filthy rich Lillian Oglethorpe’s husband has died and the reading of the will is about to take place. The family lawyer, Edmund Lazlo (John Savident) is anxious to get on with it…after all, he’s trying to make the moves on Lillian so he can get his hands on her fortune. But Lillian insists they wait for Flakfizer who helped her when she was in an accident. She sends her servant Jacques to find him. The two take a cab back to the mansion, driven by Rocco. Flakfizer ends up making Rocco, and later Jacques, a part of his personal staff.
When the will is read, it is revealed that half of the Oglethorpe fortune is to go to establishing a ballet company. Since the director of the ballet is to receive a $500,000 salary, both Flakfizer and Lazlo want the job. Lillian gives the job to Flakfizer who then goes to recruit the world’s most famous dancer, Volare (George de la Pena), to headline the company. Of course, Volare is a pompous jerk and he quickly refuses Flakfizer’s offer. But, while backstage, Rocco discovers a pair of up-and-coming young dancers Alan Grant (Spike Alexander) and Lisa Le Baron (Juli Donald). He signs them up for the company.
It looks like Alan and Lisa are going to become stars, but Lazlo has been scheming and manages to sign up Volare. Alan is out, but since Volare has his eye on Lisa, he keeps her as his lead female dancer. Now Flakfizer and Lazlo are co-directors of the ballet…but Lazlo plots to get rid of his rival. Lazlo tries, unsuccessfully, to set up a situation where Lillian will catch Flakfizer with another woman (Teri Copley) and eventually manages to get the trio arrested. After Alan and Lisa bail them out, Flakfizer, Rocco, and Jacques set out to make the ballet’s opening night a disaster…and open the door for Alan and Lisa to save the show.
The story doesn’t sound all that amazing, I admit. But as I said, the story doesn’t matter…it’s the gags that are important, and they are hilarious. The film has a great comic pedigree…produced by the Zucker brothers with writing courtesy of Pat Proft, who penned films like “Real Genius,” “Hot Shots,” and several of the Naked Gun films. For director Dennis Dugan, this was only his 2nd feature…but he’s gone on to direct a lot of big comedies like “Happy Gilmore” and “Big Daddy.” Bottom line is, these guys know comedy and they teamed up to create a very funny movie.
The quick-paced dialogue is the highlight. To say the movie is “quotable” would be an understatement. Just a sample:
“It’s said that behind every great man there is a great woman, and I’m glad the woman behind me is Lillian; because, quite frankly, I enjoy the shade.”
“Some day you’ll have my children. In fact, they’re in the car if you want them.”
“Miss, these seats are dreadful! They’re facing the stage!”
I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the filmmakers managed to capture that Marx Brothers style. But a lot of credit also has to go to Turturro, Smith, and Nelson. They wisely do not do impersonations of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo but take the basic spirit of those characters and turn them into something new. I especially loved Turturro’s take on the Groucho role. It’s a great salute to a comic genius, but at the same time, Turturro makes it his own. I’ve got to give some credit to George de la Pena, as well. He’s primarily a dancer, but he does have a solid grasp of playing a comedic villain.
The pacing is incredibly quick. Laughs literally come on top of each other. Both the hospital sequence and the ballet scene that closes the film have so many gags that you almost need to plan on watching the film twice to catch them all. At only 79 minutes in length, you might as well.
The movie just has a wonderfully playful spirit. The performances bring this through, as does the simple but fun score by Ira Newborn, with an assist from Mark Mothersbaugh, who provided the wonderful themes for the opening and closing credits. It’s quite an amazing film to experience. I mean, it doesn’t sound like it should work. Remake a Marx Brothers classic!?! You don’t go there! That’s sacrelege! But this is a hilarious success!
“Brain Donors” is a perfect example of why I love to talk about “forgotten films.” Many have never heard of this film. It barely got a theatrical release and the critics were not kind to it. Of course, most critics wouldn’t know something funny if it sat on their head and sang “Yankee Doodle.” “Brain Donors” is a loving, and hilarious, tribute to a classic comedy team which also manages to be fun and orignal on it’s own.