Whitney Cummings is funny as hell.
Granted, most of the vehicles she has either starred in, written and/or produced have been hit and miss as overall endeavors, but Ms. Cummings can regularly be counted on to be a bright spot whenever she’s on screen. So it comes as a disappointing surprise that “The Female Brain,” her first feature as a writer or director, is so devoid of any hilarity that should have ensued from this supposed romantic comedy.
Based on the best-selling non-fictional book by neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, Cummings casts herself as Brizendine, a no-nonsense neuroscientist whose research into the biochemistry of the female brain is illustrated by three couples: newlyweds Zoe (Cecily Strong) and Greg (basketball star Blake Griffin), whose career troubles seep into their relationship; Lisa (Sofia Vergara) and Steven (Deon Cole), who are looking to spice up their stuck-in-a-rut marriage; and Lexi (Lucy Punch) who can’t help trying to change her boyfriend Adam (James Marsden). Meanwhile, the straight-laced Julia’s own synapses start to fire when a handsome new subject (Toby Kebbell) joins her study.
Sounds fairly promising, no? A really funny lady making her directing debut, surrounding herself with some pretty funny people in one of the most dependable movie genres.
So where did it all go soundly wrong?
The biggest misstep is the overall tone of the movie. The setup for the movie’s progression is Cummings’ doctor presenting the story as a lecture, and for much of the movie, that’s exactly what it feels like: a lecture. And not a fun TED-type lecture where we laugh as we learn, but an actual classroom lecture from a professor, where there’s a good chance going to be a pop quiz at the end to see how much we were paying attention.
The film consistently stops in the middle of the action, so that Julia can explain something about how the brain works, as a setup for something that’s about to happen on screen. Maybe they’re in the movie because Ms. Cummings found the science of the book to be fascinating and was looking for a way to bring that science in to the movie, but more often than not, these little pauses are like speed bumps, constantly slowing down the storyline, while also robbing each scene being set up of the moment that is supposed to provide support for. It’s funny to watch an actor just let loose and go nuts on screen. It’s not funny to watch the same exact scene if you’re told ahead of time “Oh, this character is about to lose their shit because chemicals in this part of the brain in this specific gender is predestined to react in this way. Now, watch the wackiness!!!”
The movie also suffers from hiring a whole bunch of comedic actors to do their thing, and then not giving them anything funny to do. Every week on “Saturday Night Live,” Cecily Strong slays it, whether she’s doing nearly-spot on impersonations of Melania Trump and Rachel Maddow or original characters like Cathy Anne and Heather the One-Dimensional Female Character from a Male-Driven Comedy, not to mention her killer roasting of Washington DC at the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner (where she, coincidentally, started off with a joke about female brains being smaller than males). But here, when there’s a scene that should have been comedy gold to a gifted comedic actor like Strong, like when she tells her boss off after another lame product pitch she’s involved in devolves in to derogatory cliches about women, her character comes off like a bumbling fool instead of a forceful woman who has enough guts to tell off her boss and quit her job rather than face one more moment of clueless humiliation. Most of the other actors play their stock two-dimensional characters as safely as a mid-1980s ABC Afterschool Special, leaving Mr. Griffin, making his acting debut here, as the sole standout. While he’s not specifically playing himself, like LeBron James was playing “LeBron James” in “Trainwreck,” Mr. Griffin is playing a basketball player. But like his fellow NBA star, Mr. Griffin has some pretty good comedic timing, and could have a healthy career in Hollywood if one of his regularly occurring injuries ends up permanently sidelining his day job.
“The Female Brain” isn’t a total and complete waste. Some of that science behind our often regrettable romantic impulses is actually quite interesting, and it’s possible some couples watching this movie might get some true relationship value out of sharing it together. But as a comedy, the movie is just not funny enough, and if we try to take it as a drama, it’s just not dramatic enough. It’s a decent idea stuck in a weird limbo of not knowing what it really wants to be. Hopefully, Ms. Cummings’ next outing as a director will be the pedal to the metal, all-out bonkers comedy we know is in her.Rating: C-