You’d be hard pressed to find a cliché that just won’t die to the zombie saying “Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus.” It’s as original as a Xerox copy. The difference in the sexes can be mined for insights into human nature and how beliefs about the genders are reinforced by societal traditions that people are unwilling to break free of. In the new comedy from comedian-turned-director Whitney Cummings, The Female Brain, Cummings and co-writer Neal Brennan (best known as the co-creator of Chappelle’s Show) try to use science to comically examine gender roles in the modern world. At first it seems that The Female Brain is going to use science and stereotypes to subvert the way we collectively perceive gender but then the film stops trying to subvert anything and winds up using stereotypes as a means to reinforce stereotypes while not really providing much humor along the way.
Dr. Julia Brizendine (Cummings) is a neurologist fascinated by the chemical differences in the brains of males and females. The Female Brain is framed as a number of side stories that revolve around Julia’s research, with her providing plenty of narration in the form of an academic presentation of her findings. When not focusing on Julia’s story, The Female Brain follows three couples as they struggle with their relationships thanks to the chemical differences in their brains. Zoe (Cecily Strong) is a woman working in advertising and living a fairly nice upper class life with her husband of one year Greg (Blake Griffin), a professional athlete. Steven (Deon Cole) and Lisa (Sofía Vergara) have lost the fire in their relationship after 12 years together. Finally there’s Adam (James Marsden) and Lexi (Lucy Punch), the two having been together for over three years but clash over Lexi’s desire to nitpick and control Adam’s freewheeling style.
The basic thrust of these three relationships is that everybody is fighting and dissatisfied in one way or another. So many of the details about these relationships don’t come across from actions that we’re witnessing but by the minutiae explained in cold, calculated scientific detail as part of Dr. Julia’s presentation. With only 90 minutes to tell the stories and science of three couples (and we haven’t even gotten into Dr. Julia’s story), The Female Brain struggles to tell complete stories about most of its characters, often relying on predictable outcomes and lengthy strings of flat jokes.
Consumed by her scientific endeavors, Julia has put her personal life entirely on the backburner, if not entirely abandoning the concept of compatibility. Once again, Cummings and Brennan’s screenplay takes the most obvious route. Would you be surprised to find out that Julia might have an interest in relationships once the hunky everyman Kevin (Toby Kebbell) volunteers for her study? I wasn’t. Suddenly, the cold academic who has shunned sexual relationships is now having her entire worldview confronted. The second Julia tells her assistant Abby (Beanie Feldstein) about her lack of interest in dating that her character arc becomes a forgone conclusion, and the film does nothing to surprise its audience.
It’d be easy to think that Cummings and Brennan are setting up their movie to rely on stereotypes to later use them to twist the audience into new and uncomfortable places. Then the movie continues and at a certain point you realize that the film isn’t actually out to subvert anything. Cummings is using gender-based stereotypes as the point of her movie, as her character states in the film’s cold conclusion. The thesis of The Female Brain is that biology has wired our brains differently and we should embrace that, and it’s not an entirely off base statement but the way it goes about it and the scarce laughs overly dependent on stereotypes leaves the conclusion wholly underwhelming. At a hair over 90 minutes, The Female Brain seems long and drawn out because it’s so predictable in so many regards and bitterly disappointing at the end because it really wastes a lot of time to not say very much.
The Female Brain really attempts in earnest to take on more than it can handle. Between the multiple character dynamics and the need to explain in detail the inner workings of the brain, Whitney Cummings struggles to find a rhythm between all its disparate parts. Because there’s just so much swirling around the film fails take full advantage of its robust and talented cast. It’s just not funny enough to make it possible to overlook the film’s shortcomings with its cardboard characters and predictable scenarios. If only everyone involved put a little more thought into The Female Brain.