Capturing the elements that made classic comedies classic for a contemporary comedy is ne'er an easy task. In fact, it can be near impossible to accomplish such a feat. Who can forget that time Harvey Korman and Buddy Hackett attempted to recreate Abbott & Costello's timed-to-perfection routines for the the 1978 TV biopic Bud and Lou? Actually, it turns out that everybody forgot about that, and rightfully so, I dare say. How about a more timely topic, like the Farrelly Brothers' abysmal take on The Three Stooges from 2012? Yes, the same project that managed to bring a Curly Howard quote to life, "Keep on sucking until you do succeed!" was certainly ripe with failure, wasn't it? In that instance, it seemed the filmmakers were more obsessed with capturing the look of a classic comedy troupe - not to mention their sound - as opposed to their grandeur.
Yes, realize that I just used the word "grandeur" in describing The Three Stooges, but bear with me here, boys and girls.
Turning back the clock a bit, we venture to a good twenty years before the Farrelly Brothers hit rock bottom (which is quite impressive, considering the bulk of their filmography). Here, at this particular point in time, a different pair of siblings were putting together an exciting new project at Paramount Pictures.
The comedic icons being paid homage to in this instance were the legendary Marx Brothers. The story was entitled Lame Ducks, as written by Pat Proft (creator of the Hot Shots movies), which was in-turn inspired by A Night at the Opera (the Marx Brothers film, not the Queen album). The director was a fellow named Dennis Dugan (who, sadly, went on to direct most of Adam Sandler's filmography, thus ensuring him a nice reserved parking spot in the Hell). The producers were none other than the Zucker Brothers, who had practically revolutionized comedy more than a decade before with Airplane! - which created a constantly-imitated-but-never-equalled style of comedy that led to the Police Squad! / Naked Gun series.
When Lame Ducks was all set to roll, Paramount Pictures promised to hype the entire project to the moon and back - and it was just possible that the movie would become the biggest comedy hit of the year. Sadly, it was at this point that the Zucker Brothers - who were serving as the producers of the film - decided that it was time they counted their blessing and headed off to another studio. This, unfortunately, turned out to be about as bad as a move as having the guys who got lucky with There's Something About Mary a couple of years later remake The Three Stooges two decades later, as Paramount quickly withdrew its support of the movie. All advertising for the film was trashed, all planned theatrical engagements of the title were pulled, and it wasn't until sometime in the Spring of 1992 that the movie appeared on home video (with very little publicity) under the new name Brain Donors - wherein most (if not all) of composer Ira Newborn's work had been replaced by a mocking Mark Mothersbaugh score.
Indeed, it's a very sad tale of a big-time dick move - and it's all the more depressing when you sit down to watch Brain Donors and discover that it's actually good. In fact, it's a very funny movie that very well could have been the biggest hit of whatever year it was supposed to premiere in had it been given the chance to be what it was intended to be.
Here, writer Proft somehow manages to update the outrageous antics of the Marx Brothers for then-modern audiences, incorporating various witty quips within the confines of an appropriately silly story. But it's probably the three leads here - John Turturro, Mel Smith, and Bob Nelson - that ultimately, eagerly breathe air into the project with a bicycle pump, wisely choosing to not get the look and sound right, but instead focusing on the methods to the Marx Brothers' madness. Turturro takes center stage as the Groucho character, an ambulance chaser attorney named Ronald T. Flakfizer, who gets the money-grabbing chance of a lifetime when the wealthy socialite widow Lillian Oglethorpe (Nancy Marchand, doing a grand Margaret Dumont impersonation) gives him the opportunity to co-manage a new ballet company - an organization formed at the behest of her late husband.
But such a task isn't an easy one - especially when there's a slimy upperclass twit of a lawyer ready to put an end to your scheme (as played here by Coronation Street's John Savident, who dons the robes of Sig Ruman). So Groucho, er, Flakfizer takes on two mischievous outcasts as his personal unwanted entourage: Oglethorpe's childish gardner Jacques (Bob Nelson) with a trenchcoat full of props (meet your new Harpo, ladies and gentlemen), and a real con artist of a cabdriver named Rocco (late British comedian Mel Smith, whom most Yanks sadly only know as the Albino from The Princess Bride). The league or rivalry increases when a stuck-up ballet artist known as The Great Volare (George de la Pena, imbibing the persona of Walter Woolf King's Rodolfo Lassparri) joins the new ballet company, intent on weeding out little people like our three leads.
Two additional little people are the film's Kitty Carlisle/Allan Jones pairing, young dancers/lovers played by Juliana Donald and Spike Alexander - who really bring nothing more to the story than the necessity of having to be there solely to round out the whole homage thing. Thankfully, unlike the Carlisle/Jones numbers from the original Marx Brothers motion picture, the dancing bits with Donald and Alexander are limited in this final cut of the film (there's no telling how much Paramount may have excised during the movie's lengthy post-production period), which makes the epic sabotaging of the newly-formed company's opening night. I don't think I've laughed that hard at the use of a whoopee cushion since I was a grade-schooler. And that's one of the great things about Brain Donors: it's childish jokes enable you to take one giant leap back in time.
Though Brain Donors eventually found an audience in the youth of the '90s, Paramount's apparent hatred for the movie knew no bounds, as their only DVD release of the movie went out of print several years back. Thankfully, the Warner Archive Collection managed to get their hands on this underrated and extremely neglected comedy (which is quite appropriate, considering Warner owns the rights to A Night at the Opera itself) and present the original Paramount disc verbatim - complete with no special features whatsoever, as you should have probably expected. But at least the 1.85:1 matted widescreen presentation of the movie sports a nice 5.1 Dolby Digital track and English subtitles for those of you who want to catch every single witty line without fail.
Highly recommended. In fact, I think even Zeppo and Gummo would have found it funny.