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With her first feature, Whitney Cummings joins the short list of filmmakers who have made comedies based on nonfiction best-sellers. Woody Allen did it in 1972 with Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, and like that film, hers is composed of vignettes. But The Female Brain is a decidedly more middle-of-the-road affair, the brief scenes forming four rom-com threads involving couples at different stages of involvement, from just-met to long married.
Anyone expecting the acerbic insights of the 2 Broke Girls co-creator’s stand-up will find a far gentler tone prevailing. At the feature’s Los Angeles Film Festival premiere, Cummings noted that she and co-writer Neal Brennan (Chapelle’s Show) were aiming for a nuanced depiction of reality rather than go-for-broke laughs. But comedy is the movie’s chief mode, and, however game the accomplished cast, it takes a while to find its comic groove. When it clicks, it can be terrifically, weirdly funny, making you wish that this loose-limbed approach had infused more of the film.
Yet despite the film’s lapses in momentum, its charismatic ensemble and unusual spin on romantic dilemmas could strike a crowd-pleasing chord, like the pop-science book by neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine that inspired it. Avoiding the book’s contested elements, Cummings and Brennan use its basic lessons in neurology to enlighten and reassure and, crucially, to debunk attitudes that demonize certain behaviors associated with women. There are important evolutionary adaptations behind being a controlling perfectionist, for example, and “epigenetic imprinting” certainly sounds better than “becoming your mother.”
Cummings stars as a fictional version of the source material’s author, university researcher Julia Brizendine, who favors sensible button-down shirts, is too busy to eat anything but Soylent and has decided that she understands her own brain so well that a romantic relationship would be extraneous. Her assistant, Abby (Beanie Feldstein), knows better, even though she’s a slightly unhinged millennial who’s on every Rx known to modern pharmacology.
Abby senses that the neurologist’s asceticism is just a front, and the audience knows it, having seen Julia’s mother (Marlo Thomas) gazing wistfully at wedding photos of Julia and her cheating ex. The inevitable question of how and when that tightly guarded heart will open is set in motion with the instant attraction between Julia and one of her study participants, Kevin (Toby Kebbell). A rough-around-the-edges Mr. Fix-It who’s not only persistent but kind and sincere, he’s also the perfect complement to her ice-cool professionalism.
As with the three other relationship storylines in the film, the awkward interactions between Julia and Kevin serve as mini-lessons in biochemistry and emotional intelligence. At key moments, Cummings freezes the frame and overlays the scene with images and helpful phrases to explain which parts of the brain are being fired up and why. She inserts witty selections of wonderfully odd stock footage to illustrate her voiceover commentary on such matters as endorphins, fight or flight, cortisol and hypervigilance.
The male brain (the subject of Brizendine’s second book) gets a look-see, too — notably in the territorial antics of Greg (NBA player Blake Griffin, showing he has comic chops). A professional athlete who’s grounded by injury, Greg gets uncustomarily busy on the home front, to the increasing frustration of his wife, Zoe (Saturday Night Live’s Cecily Strong). Even more frustrating are her attempts to be heard over the boundless condescension of her boss (screenwriter Brennan). The issue for married-with-child Lisa (Sofia Vergara) and Steven (Deon Cole) is more garden-variety: The thrill is gone. There’s a candid sweetness to her attempts to reignite the spark, and a cartoonish petulance to his reactions.
But in terms of comic chemistry, the film springs to life when it introduces unmarried couple Adam (James Marsden) and Lexi (Lucy Punch). Her constant attempts to groom him, attributed to the workings of gray matter as well as a rather obviously toxic mother (Jane Seymour), crescendo in an unconvincing medical crisis. But along the way, Marsden and Punch generate some of the movie’s most deliriously silly moments.
The other actors provide improvisational yuks, too, and Strong and Griffin in particular get to mix it up with actors delivering strong cameos as variously ridiculous types, among them recent Tony winner Ben Platt as an absurdly patronizing venture capitalist and Will Sasso as a physical therapist with no boundaries.
Cummings’ direction is most assured in the seemingly offhand business at the edges of the story. It’s when she moves toward the center that her visual style tends to become flat. An overreliance on back-and-forth close-ups drains the energy from a number of exchanges, and makes some of the movie’s relationship lessons feel forced. Late in the proceedings, a two-shot of her and Kebbell against a strikingly color-coordinated shelf of books is an exception, delivering a welcome jolt of whimsy to bring this smart, sometimes strained, sporadically hilarious adventure in popular science to its hopeful close.
Production companies: Black Bicycle Entertainment, Night and Day Pictures
Cast: Whitney Cummings, Sofia Vergara, Toby Kebbell, James Marsden, Lucy Punch, Beanie Feldstein, Cecily Strong, Blake Griffin, Deon Cole, Marlo Thomas, Jane Seymour, Will Sasso, Ben Platt, Adam Shapiro, Adam Korson, Phil Hendrie
Director: Whitney Cummings
Screenwriters: Neal Brennan, Whitney Cummings, based on the book by Louann Brizendine
Producers: Erika Olde, Michael Roiff, Whitney Cummings
Executive producer: Louann Brizendine
Director of photography: Bradford Lipson
Production designer: David Saenz de Maturana
Costume designer: Samantha Kuester
Editor: Peggy Eghbalian
Composer: Jeff Cardoni
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (Premieres)
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