It’s perhaps fitting that Whitney Cummings gives herself the most thankless role onscreen in her feature directorial debut, “The Female Brain,” since she gave herself a doozy of a challenge off of it. With co-writer Neal Brennan, she extracts a narrative out of neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine’s 2006 book about her findings about the differences in male and female thinking, translating amygdala activity into Tinder terminology of why one swipes left and quantifying the release of hormones such as cortisol into familiar behavioral patterns. While this is impressive enough when it proves to be fertile territory for a wicked comedy, Cummings’ decision to essentially play it straight as a surrogate for Brizendine, taking the scientist’s surname while re-branding herself as Julia, in order to facilitate the action elsewhere unlocks the potential of an opportunity rich yet dramatically unfriendly premise.
All but removed from the dating scene herself after a particularly bad breakup, Julia has thrown herself into her work, studying the MRI scans of those in three relationships at varying stages – the relative newlyweds Zoe (Cecily Strong) and Greg (Blake Griffin), the committed yet unwed Lexi (Lucy Punch) and Adam (James Marsden) and the longtime married couple Lisa (Sofia Vergara) and Steven (Deon Cole) who have seen the passion seep out of their union after 12 years together. Cummings wisely dispenses with the particulars of the study, simply jumping between scenes of each couple coming to terms with what their relationships have become and their differing perspectives on it, as Steven and Lisa both consider divorce but worry about bringing it up to one another, Adam suffers destabilizing insecurity about Lexi’s desire to groom him more, and Greg, an NBA star sidelined with knee injury, struggles to find purpose as his wife leaves for her marketing job each day, unaware of how much she hates it. Meanwhile, Dr. Brizendine becomes intrigued in a new enrollee in the study named Bobby (Toby Kebbell), where her interest evolves into something more than scientific.
Like most ensemble comedies that juggle multiple storylines, some threads are more satisfying than others, but beyond Cummings’ strength for observational humor, what stands out about “The Female Brain” is her gift as a filmmaker for staging physical gags. Although the film gets in some sharp verbal jousting early as partners fail to see the needs of their significant other, the further away the film gets from its premise, the bigger laughs it gets as Cummings and Brennan create some big comic set-pieces that take advantage of the loose-knit structure. Lingering on Lexi futzing with a zit on Adam’s back and finding exactly the right camera angles to make Greg’s extra-physical conditioning with his physical trainer (Will Sasso) even more uncomfortable, every effort is made to make the big laughs bigger, accentuated by canny casting across the board, specifically Kebbell, who isn’t agreeably difficult for either Brizendine or an audience to pin down, and Griffin, whose deft comic timing should make us all thankful he stayed a Clipper and remained close to Hollywood.
While give and take is constantly negotiated between the couples, Cummings leads with her generosity towards her actors, letting them play towards their strengths and taking scenes in interesting directions, which is just part of what makes “The Female Brain” the truly cerebral comedy she no doubt wanted it to be. Saying before the film’s premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival that her goal was to make a “Modern-day [version of] ‘The Magic School Bus,’” she’s succeeded in creating quite the fun, thoughtful ride.
“The Female Brain” does not yet have U.S. distribution.