The Archivist Volume XVI: Sort of John Turturro — BEING HUMAN [1994] and BRAIN DONORS [1992]

Welcome to the Archive. Following the infamous “Format Wars” (R.I.P. VHS), a multitude of films found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their admittedly niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Disc On Demand and Streaming service devoted to some of the more idiosyncratic pieces of cinema ever made. Being big fans of the label, we here at Cinapse thought it prudent to establish a column devoted to these unusual gems. Thus “The Archivist” was born — a biweekly look at some of the best, boldest and most batshit motion pictures the Shield has to offer. Some of these will be recent additions to the collection, while others will be titles that have been available for awhile. With over 1,500 pictures procurable on Warner Archive (and more being added every month), there’s no possible way we’ll get to all of them. But trust me when we say we’re sure going to try.

Archiviteers, I have to begin this week’s installment with a confession. Originally, the plan was to recommend a double-feature covering Being Human and The World According To Garp. Well, for your information, the latter title is no longer available from The Warner Archives. Sad news, I know. After several lengthy sojourns through Warner’s lovely pit of cinematic resurrection, I couldn’t seem to find anything that quite sounded like the perfect match for Being Human. Obviously, the whole point was to select two films featuring performances by the late Robin Williams, but in a pinch, I couldn’t help but notice the noble comedic tribute Brain Donors was being preserved in The Archives. That film just happens to have John Turturro, and absolutely nothing else, in common with that Williams film for which I so badly needed a companion piece. So, without further disclaiming, let me tell you about a movie that barely has John Turturro in it, and another that has almost too much of him.

I am still reeling from the death of Robin Williams. I hadn’t been very interested in his most recent work, so seeing a lost film from earlier in his illustrious career is a true joy. Being Human cuts five slices of life from human history which allow us to watch one deeply flawed man find his way through the loss and reunion of his family, among other things. We meet Hector (Williams) as a homo sapien cave dweller, then he is a slave in Rome (to his master, John Turturro), then a Scottish servant to a priest in the crusades, a shipwrecked Portuguese Renaissance-era nobleman, and finally, a modern day business man who has estranged himself from his kids. He is cowardly, selfish, and can rarely manage to do the right thing.

The performances are excellent all around from a cast including Vincent D’Onofrio, Robert Carlyle, Theresa Russell, Bill Nighy, William H. Macy, and Lorraine Bracco. These actors do as much for some notable authenticity in each era as the set design and costuming. Each episode creates a surprisingly rich atmosphere to explore, accompanying the increasingly intriguing and often funny adventures of Hector. That’s a fine achievement, but the film itself is not. Apparently director Bill Forsythe lost control of the expensive production, and Warner Brothers’ oversight is responsible for a hacky, on-the-nose narration read by Theresa Russell over the soundtrack, as well as the enforcement of a happy ending. Let me be clear, this is no turd, but the “improvements” resulting from studio interference do great damage to a film which would otherwise have been a fascinating, deliberately paced experience. There is some pay-off in the end, as we realize the life story Williams’ character details to his children parallels that of the five different Hectors throughout history. That’s a lovely revelation, considering the first couple of episodes seemed, at first, nearly pointless. This one is definitely flawed, but I won’t be calling up the universe to demand my time be reimbursed.

And now for something completely different…

Here is it folks, the John Turturro part of the supposed John Turturro double feature. David and Jerry Zucker (some of the Airpane! and Naked Gun guys) took on a rather intimidating challenge when they produced a film working under the title Lame Ducks. The Zuckers, writer Pat Proft (who wrote basically every non-Mel Brooks parody movie), and director Dennis Dugan (oh god… google the guy’s filmography for yourself) came together, and despite studio interference from Paramount, managed to create a pretty damn solid update of The Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. Turturro (in the Groucho role), Mel Smith (Chico), and Bob Nelson (Harpo) do some extraordinary work as facsimiles of the comedy legends. Nelson is especially wonderful as Jacques, a not entirely mute but fully loveable stand-in for Harpo. His timing is phenomenal, and his dedication to the role really shines while juggling the enormous prop arsenal the silent Marx Brother so often plucked from the infinite. They may not be perfect impressions, but if any trio of actors could give The Marx Brothers a run for their money, then what the hell would be so special about The Marx Brothers?

As one would expect from the Zuckers, Brain Donors (a title selected by the studio) boasts a bombastic whirlwind of jokes from minute one. Most of them land gloriously, but this is not a perfect comedy. One or two jokes will hit the ground and roll near the target, while others will soar so far into the distance, it’s hard to know where they were aiming. The more I think about it, however, the more I realize how nit-picky that seems in retrospect. I had a great time watching this movie. My girlfriend would walk into the room from time to time, paying no attention to the screen, laugh at a joke she heard, and stick around to see what would happen next. It’s a lot of fun, especially for those of us who grew up watching classic comedians like The Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy. Seek this thing out!

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