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‘Brain Donors’

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 18, 1992


Dennis Dugan
John Turturro;
Bob Nelson;
Mel Smith;
Nancy Marchand;
John Savident;
George de La Pena;
Spike Alexander
Parental guidance suggested

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Producers David and Jerry Zucker have shown with "Airplane," "The Naked Gun" and "Top Secret" that they are inspired film parodists. "Brain Donors" suggests that they are clumsy plagiarists. Their new film is basically a direct rip from the Marx Brothers' classic "A Night at the Opera," with its action moved into the world of ballet. Anyone at all familiar with the 1935 original will have a definite sense of deja vu, and will remember seeing everything done much better the first time around.

John Turturro, Bob Nelson and Mel Smith impersonate the Marx Brothers. Turturro-as-Groucho plays Roland T. Flakfizer (shades of Rufus T. Firefly), a shyster lawyer with quick wits, a fast mouth and an endless supply of schemes. Nelson-as-Harpo (quiet but not mute) is Jacques, a "mischievous innocent" with deep pockets, loads of physical shtick and all sorts of marvelous but pointless visual jokes. Smith-as-Chico is Rocco, a bumbling cab driver given to misunderstandings and weak plans.

The "similarities" don't end there: Nancy Marchand (a dead ringer in the Margaret Dumont role) is Lillian Ogglethorpe, the ditzy dowager who endows a new ballet company to be run by the opportunist Flakfizer, whose manipulations and insults she remains oblivious to. John Savident (in the Sig Ruman role) is Lazlo, the unctuous family lawyer who fights for control of the ballet company, aided by egotistical artiste George de la Pena (in the Walter Woolf King role). Juli Donald and Spike Alexander recap the ingenue roles originally crafted by Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones as the youngsters who save the company from disaster before the last curtain falls. Even the Pat Proft screenplay seems little more than an update of the George S. Kaufman original, right down to the Big Opening Night finale that moves from slapstick chaos to happy ending. There are other Marx-like scenes, one set in a mansion and another in an operating room, and loads of Groucho-like repartee and schemology (he envisions a ballet for the hard of hearing: The dancers will wear wooden shoes). It's all very busy, and in Zucker style there seem to be 10 jokes per minute, but most fly fast and fall flat.

Were all this served up openly as homage (or even parody), were the Marx Brothers and "A Night at the Opera" acknowledged in the credits or the press book, it might be excusable, even if this clone job pales compared with the original. But that's not the case. And in the final analysis Turturro, though a fine dramatic actor, is no Groucho, Proft is no Kaufman, and director Dennis Dugan is no Sam Wood.

And "Brain Donors" is no "Night at the Opera."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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