If you want to get your romantic comedy in front of the camera, you need a hook, a conceit that will sell it. It takes an experienced filmmaker, and a brave one, to abandon a treasured conceit when it becomes obvious it’s not generating laughs. It’s just getting in the way.
Comic actress turned director Whitney Cummings got “The Female Brain” made thanks, one can guess, to this hook. She plays a neurologist “looking inside your head” doing research on the differences between the sexes that can be traced to chemical or physiological factors, a sort of evolutionary “Women are from Venus, Men from Mars.”
“Brain” is an ensemble comedy starring some usually funny people weighed down by that conceit, a gimmicky long-running series of narrated discussions of the chemical and neurological reasons for human behaviors, reactions, wants and desires — each little narrated lecture illustrated by clips of old educational films, stop-motion animation, nature films and graphics.
Dr. Julia (Cummings) can explain away the “chemistry” she avoids having with one test subject, Kevin (Toby Kebbell) with a “You’re having dopamine withdrawal,” which is a serious buzz kill for a guy who just wants her to “stop talking and let me be a cutie pie.”
Lisa and Steven, played by Sofia Vergara and Deon Cole, are a long-married couple having trouble re-igniting the passion in their marriage. Lisa, being a woman, picks up on this and frets about it endlessly. It’s biological.
Lucy Punch and James Marsden play live-in lovers always quarreling over her efforts to polish, groom and perfect his appearance and life.
And most amusing of all might be pairing up just-traded NBA star Blake Griffin with SNL’s adenoidal neurotic, Cecily Strong. They play a couple having problems that further illustrate the good doctor’s thesis that there are scientific explanations for why some women struggle in business, for instance. Zoe (Strong) is in advertising surrounded by Neanderthals, and she can’t be heard because women “avoid conflict, seek consensus,” and that might have something to do with brain development driven by evolution.
Cummings, an engaging if not exactly warm comedienne, is reaching for an “I can have it all” sort of empowering post feminist comedy. But it feels retrograde in its self-admitted stereotypes. Julia declares “I’m a girl” and strips off her blouse as if to prove it, but “I refuse to be a puppet of my neurochemicals.” The guy who is out of her class (Kevin is an electrician) sizes her up without having to put her in her own MRI.
“For someone who studies women you sure seem to hate being one.”
Sparks fly in some of their banter, though. Griffin handles himself well as the comic straight man interacting with Strong and Will Sasso (as an obsese physical therapist), a “molly” moment with the make-this-marriage-fresh folks (Vergara and Cole) almost takes off, and poor Marsden and Punch never really click when paired up.
Cummings, working from a Louann Brizendine book, has rendered romance clinical and forgotten to drop more sugar water in the Petri dish. She was too busy clinging to that “explain the brain” conceit to notice. The movie’s just not that damned funny.
MPAA Rating: unrated, drug abuse, sexual situations, profanity
Cast: Whitney Cummings, Sofia Vergara, Deon Cole, Toby Kebell, Cecily Strong, Jane Seymour, James Marsden, Lucy Punch, Blake Griffin
Running time: 1:38