Why try to do a new Marx Brothers movie when the Marxes aren't around? It's a bizarre question, and "Brain Donors" (citywide)--a remake of "A Night at the Opera," set in the world of ballet--never really answers it. It just blasts ahead.
John Turturro, Bob Nelson and Mel Smith get the Groucho, Harpo and Chico parts, while Nancy Marchand clomps into Margaret Dumont's footsteps. There are ingenue lovers, a blustering Sig Ruman type (John Savident) and climactic chaos, where the trio tear up the show and put the snobs to rout.
It's "Night at the Opera," all right--and there are even some modern additions: snappy Will Vinton Claymation credits and the improbably gorgeous Teri Copley en deshabille. But it's all robbed of point and edge.
Director Dennis Dugan ("Problem Child") keeps the film juiced up, but the satire isn't directed at much. Back in the '30s, the Marx Brothers could savage high culture because their humor was based on tearing up the show, brainy irreverence, fracturing language and deflating pomposity. "Brain Donors" simply wants to do Marx Brothers shtick.
In a way, you can understand why. These days, there's so little wit and verbal fire in movie comedies that '30s Marx Brothers films seem part of a lost art--one that "Donors"' executive producers, the Zucker brothers and writer Pat Proft ("Police Academy"), have clearly studied. Proft gives Turturro's Roland T. Flakfizer--an ambulance chaser, first seen running after an ambulance--something like Groucho's free-associating, acidulous gab. He dreams up cherubic silent comedy for Nelson and loads his trench coat with props, and writes Mel Smith as a raffish Chico type (British rather than Italian).
Given the fact that the whole movie is probably a mistake, it's surprisingly funny--mostly due to Turturro and his perfect dumb-matronly foil, Marchand. Turturro doesn't try to mimic Groucho, except in chutzpah. As in "Barton Fink," he resembles George S. Kaufman (who co-wrote "Cocoanuts," "Animal Crackers" and "Opera"), and his delivery suggests a mix of Lord Buckley and William Buckley on amphetamines.
Like Groucho, Turturro never lets anything faze him: not his part, not his partners, not "Brain Donors" (rated PG, despite bawdy humor) itself. It's hard to remember when actors have stepped into such a no-win situation and mustered up such panache: Turturro may be on a sinking ship, but he manages to drown brilliantly.
'Brain Donors' John Turturro: Roland T. Flakfizer Mel Smith: Rocco Melonchek Bob Nelson: Jacques Nancy Marchand: Lillian Oglethorpe
A Paramount Pictures presentation of a Zucker Brothers production. Director Dennis Dugan. Producers Gil Netter, James D. Brubaker. Executive producers David Zucker, Jerry Zucker. Screenplay Pat Proft. Cinematographer David M. Walsh. Editor Malcolm Campbell. Music Ira Newborn. Production design William J. Cassidy. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.