No character ever says it outright, but it seems like the kind of obvious line that might have lurked in an earlier draft of Whitney Cummings’ directorial debut “The Female Brain”: For a woman who knows so much about the brain, she’s a real dummy when it comes to the heart. The woman in question is Cummings herself, cast here as a neurologist named Julia Brizendine (a nod to the actual neurologist who penned the book that partially inspired Cummings and Neal Brennan’s script, Dr. Louann Brizendine). She’s obsessed with cracking the code of the human brain, but unable to translate her findings into the wider emotional world. Julia’s work is rooted in studying female brains — and all the kooky responses they seem to trigger — to better battle back long-standing stereotypes (“women are crazy,” for example) and make the world a brainier place.
It’s easy to imagine this initial plot spawning the kind of breezy romantic comedy that was so prevalent in the ’90s and has now all but died out when it comes to the big screen. Just imagine Cummings trying to juggle a bunch of brains in a jar while her dashing suitor comes crashing into her lab. Yet Cummings takes the material in a high-concept direction that’s far more beholden to contemporary rom-coms — that kind that hopelessly add a whole lot of people into one plot and mix them around like a bag of Shake’N Bake Chicken in place of telling a good story.
“The Female Brain” is grounded in Julia’s work (and, eventually, her own romantic foibles), but it’s also segmented into lackluster case studies that allow the film to dramatize three very different relationships in terribly broad strokes. There’s the bored married couple, the girlfriend who is shrewish to her irritated boyfriend, and the recently hitched mismatched pair that just can’t seem to see eye to eye on things.
For a film initially compelled by the idea that stereotypes are bad, “The Female Brain” literally doesn’t exist without them (“I’m not going to be a stereotype!,” Cecily Strong’s character announces during our first introduction). The formulaic approach to presenting each story — which ostensibly track different people Julia herself has studied, though she never interacts with them — is predictable, static, and wholly clinical.
There’s Steven (Deon Cole) and Lisa (Sofia Vergara), a long-time married couple who worry that the spark has gone out of their relationship. Lexi (Lucy Punch) and Adam (James Marsden) have been together for a few years, but that hasn’t stopped Lexi from constantly trying to change Adam (her latest obsession: he should chemically straighten his hair). Finally, Zoe (Strong) and Greg (a surprisingly charming Blake Griffin, in his first feature film role) got married so quickly that they didn’t have much time to consider how very different they are, a point exacerbated by their different careers and Zoe’s desire to retain her individuality.
For nearly two hours, the film unspools the same narrative conceit: a situation with one couple is introduced — from something as big as the possibility they should divorce to something as small as one’s burning desire to pop a pimple on the other’s back, you can’t say “The Female Brain” doesn’t try to cover all bases — and Julia herself explains why this is happening, via snappy scientific facts and light stock footage. There’s some sort of slightly humorous resolution, or maybe the pair just start talking about something else, or maybe the scene just ends, it doesn’t really matter. Even such a rigid structure can’t keep the film from feeling shapeless.
With such a large cast and so many different storylines, it’s impossible to feel close to any of Cummings’ characters. It’s even more difficult to feel much for Julia, who Cummings — best known for her comedy, and for good reason — has rendered as a flat, emotionless robot packing the most obvious romantic secrets imaginable. Julia, for all her obsession with cracking the ways in which men and women interact with each other, doesn’t date, instead relying on the other elements of her life to provide her with the necessary chemical reactions that love itself might stir in her. “I refuse to be a puppet of our neurochemicals,” she announces to her beleaguered assistant Abby (Beanie Feldstein, making the most of minimal material), before traipsing off into a scene in which it’s revealed that she’s only like this because her marriage crumbled. Yes, it’s just that shallow.
Just as the very couples she so meticulously chronicled are splintering, Julia falls in love herself, with the arrival of manly study participant Kevin (Toby Kebbell), whose brain belies him as nearer to caveman than actual modern man. Why Julia goes for him is never clear — all the brain-centric mumbo-jumbo in the world can’t quite explain this pairing — and “The Female Brain” eventually gives itself over to her own issues, though still not long enough to conjure much in the way of neurological or emotional response in her audience. By the time the film chugs to its nonsensical ending, it’s become a very familiar feeling indeed.
“The Female Brain” is in theaters and on select VOD platforms on February 9.