LA Film Fest 2017: The Female Brain, by David Bax
During a resurgence of feminism and an increased social awareness of the plights of the marginalized, a movie called The Female Brain, directed by a woman, ought to be a milestone, a rallying point. Yet, despite eventually arriving at a positive message (traditionally feminine behavioral and psychological traits should not be categorized as weaker than masculine ones), Whitney Cummings’ directorial debut is content to hit on a variety of well-worn tropes, both romantic—Toby Kebbell as the stalker with a heart of gold!—and comedic—Sofia Vergara and Deon Cole as middle aged people who try drugs!—on its way to ultimately upholding, rather than destroying, outdated stereotypes.
Cummings (along with co-screenwriter Neal Brennan, who appears in a small role) does at least earn points for an unconventional undertaking. Her comedy is based on a popular nonfiction book of the same name by neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine. She has structured the lessons of the source material in the form of an anthology of overlapping short stories, mostly about couples. You’ve got the fussbudget and the laidback dude (Lucy Punch and James Marsden), the married couple who have lost their spark (Vergara and Cole), the career-minded lady with the old-fashioned but supportive husband (Cecily Strong and Blake Griffin) and more.
This cast is the best thing Cummings has going for her. Strong, Vergara and Marsden are as solid and dependable as always and Griffin may actually have a future as another athlete-turned-funnyman. The VIP, though, is Punch, who alternates between ridiculous and crushingly sympathetic with masterful ease. Cummings, unfortunately, is the worst of the bunch. As a neuropsychiatrist based on the book’s author, she oversells her jokes and gratingly embraces the familiar mannerisms of the “frigid woman” archetype.
Unfortunately, especially for a talented standup comic, she also fails as a director of comedy. As a cinematic genre, comedy depends perhaps on nothing so much as rhythm. Yet Cummings seem obstinately unwilling to utilize editing (the most filmic ingredient of a film) to establish cadence, instead leaving far too much dead air between the jokes.
That’s too bad because, without the laughs, it becomes even more apparent that Cummings is only interested in enforcing hoary Mars/Venus gender conventions. She repeatedly utilizes freeze frames with x-ray overlays to illustrate the various parts of the brain, often accompanied by stereotypical, disparaging terms like “hot mess,” “drama queen” or “nag.” But instead of tearing down these false and hurtful ideas, The Female Brain reverse –engineers science in order to enforce them. “Women need to gossip,” we’re told, and then given shaky explanations as to why. Brizendine’s book has garnered its share of criticism, even removing from later editions a bit based on a false source. The Female Brain contains little in the way of entertainment that would overcome the same scrutiny.