The Female Brain

The central joke of The Female Brain is that men and women, as (reductively speaking) the two halves of the human species, fall into certain stereotypes on principle: Men are domineering, and women are emotional. It provides a lot of scientific information via freeze-frames on some external examples of these stereotypes to support that hypothesis, pointing to a certain area of the human brain in the two genders and explaining to the audience (quite literally, as the framing device is a TEDtalk-type event at which our protagonist is speaking) what control those areas of the brain have over the humans in the story being told. Then the film paints itself into a corner.

The result is a frustrating movie that is often very funny, features game actors in winning performances, and still isn't very good. Some might balk at that statement, arguing that a film intending to be a comedy that succeeds at making the viewer laugh (more than once and quite loudly) and at featuring talented actors doing good work is a good movie, indeed. The designation is subtle, but the treatment is key. Screenwriters Whitney Cummings (who also directed) and Neal Brennan, adapting a book by Louann Brizendine, offer an intelligent examination of - despite the movie's title - both the male and female brains, and then they have to go and shape the movie's main concern after the female stereotype they are attempting to deconstruct.

Julia Brizendine (Cummings), whose surname suggests that the character is a version of the real author, is indeed a scientist who specializes in the human brain. Her goal is to figure out every chemical reaction that can be attributed to emotion or personality, so that there isn't even the hint of a question for anyone regarding interpersonal connection. If there is a chemical rationale behind a woman's jealousy or a man's territorialism, it will always eventually be reset. It's the pipe dream of having nothing to worry about after locating and naming the issue. In other words, it's a nice thought but a naive one, too. After all, Julia has just recently been left by the man she loved, so the desire to specify it is personal as much as it is professional.

In any case, indeed, she is giving a speech at some unnamed conference, telling the stories of three fictional couples: Zoe (Cecily Strong), a marketing associate for a men's deodorant company (whose PR team essentially sidelines every good idea she has for the cheap, blatantly sexist ones that are drawn up), is married to Greg (Blake Griffin, charging past the criticisms of sports stars becoming actors by giving the film's funniest performance), a professional basketball player who injures his knee in a championship game. Adam (James Marsden) and Lexi (Lucy Punch) have been married for almost the entire year they've known each other, and Lisa (Sofia Vergara) and Steven (Deon Cole) have discovered, after twenty years of marriage and raising a son, that the spark just isn't there anymore.

There isn't much that the film can do with these hypothetical characters, and the structure of the movie is baffling: The framing device is the speech in which these couples are the bases of some topical examples, while the story itself moves forward elsewhere, with Julia Meet-Cute-ing a possible sociopath named Kevin (Toby Kebbell) and ignoring at first her own signals, then Kevin's, then the urgings of her medication-happy assistant Abby (Beanie Feldstein) to live her best life. This is exactly the kind of stereotypical will-they-won't-they romantic entanglement the film rallies against on the basis of its being a stereotype, yet Cummings and Brennan aren't saying anything of worth about this part of the plot, meaning that the point of it all is lost in confusion.

The stories of the couples, meanwhile, aren't that interesting, with Lisa and Steven's problems relegated to a lot of arguments and Adam and Lexi's boiling down to whether each is really fine with the idea of taking care of the other in sickness and health. There is some promise in the story of Zoe and Greg, mainly because the performances from Strong and Griffin are engaging enough that one wishes this was a movie about them, but then one remembers that they aren't a real couple (within this fictional movie, I mean) and the stakes are just as false. Then we cut back to Julia's dull-on-arrival romance, and The Female Brain continues being what it criticizes.

Film Information

Whitney Cummings (Julia), Toby Kebbell (Kevin), Beanie Feldstein (Abby), Cecily Strong (Zoe), Blake Griffin (Greg), Lucy Punch (Lexi), James Marsden (Adam), Sofia Vergara (Lisa), Deon Cole (Steven), Will Sasso (Physical Therapist).

Directed by Whitney Cummings and written by Cummings and Neal Brennan, based on the book by Louann Brizendine.

No MPAA rating.

98 minutes.

Released in select cities on February 9, 2018.

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