It’s not unusual for nonfiction stories to be turned into movies. Think “Black Hawk Down” or “The Perfect Storm.”
What is unusual about this film is that it is a movie version of a pop-psychology book.
The source material is “The Female Brain,” a 2007 best seller by neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine. Naturally she published a follow-on title, “The Male Brain,” three years later that sold well but to the less introspective masculine audience.
I didn’t read those books, but their themes seem to be that general — not individual — differences between women and men can be ascribed to differences in their brain chemistry. This idea is interesting but not new to people who have been paying attention for the last century or so.
The theme is introduced early in the movie by a female neuroscientist, also named Brizendine (Whitney Cummings, who wrote and directed), who has been burned by love and reacted by turning herself into a professional automaton. For this she is needled by her assistant (Beanie Feldstein) a younger, more practical woman who also scarfs mood meds from Adderall to Xanax.
We see the MRI of a man as he looks at pictures of a cute kitten and then a beautiful baby — and has no female brain activation at all, which makes the researcher happy.
“Life is so much easier now that I have a machine that lets me see inside people’s minds,” she says.
Then we watch three married couples tussle over their relationships. As each woman makes her point, the camera zooms in with an MRI of her brain, pointing out which hormone is driving her reaction or behavior: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, cortisol, the usual stuff.
In one, a recently married woman keeps trying to “fix” her husband. In the second, an advertising executive hates her job but doesn’t want to be financially dependent on her husband, a professional basketball player (played nicely by NBA forward Blake Griffin). In the third, a years-married woman and mother mourns the lost thrills of the early years of her marriage.
The husbands are bewildered. They want to be helpful, and they want their wives to be happy. They mostly don’t want a lot of friction around the house.
This movie drives some critics crazy. They see it as a catalog of female pathology, all predetermined by brain chemistry. To me, this is a serious misreading of the plot.
For one thing, the film title isn’t “The Male Brain.” It’s about how women’s brains work, which implies some analysis of female behavior, not men’s.
More to the point, the movie’s theme is that women, presumably like men, are not hostages to their hormones. They have choices. They can negotiate. They can change.
Even the buttoned-up neuroscientist can change.
This is a small indie film. It’s light and inoffensive, perhaps not unlike the book for which it is named. It might appeal to groups of women or to couples who could discuss it afterward over dinner.
“The Female Brain” will never play in as many theaters as this week’s big release, “Fifty Shades,” a fantasy story about a poor girl who is inexplicably attracted to a sexual deviant guy who coincidentally just happens to be a billionaire. That movie will make a lot of money, but its popularity should lead us to wonder whether our entire culture could benefit from an MRI scan of its own.