I don't know how Ira Levin's best seller read on the page, but its 1978 adaptation THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL is quite the camp fest. A straight faced film with more laughs than many comedies of its time (and possibly since). It might have been unavoidable. The story involves the efforts of thoroughly loony Nazi physician Joseph Mengele, now based in South America, to create a new master race of Aryan children.
The raw materials are there for an effective meld of sci-fi, social drama, political drama, and thriller. All of these elements are included in Heywood Gould's screenplay but intentionally or not this production readily embraces the sensational at every turn. Director Franklin J. Schaffner (PATTON) seems to have followed his worst instincts and ignored the sort of restraint he's exhibited in earlier pictures. The blame also must fall, quite unfortunately, on its stellar cast, which includes Laurence Olivier as Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (obviously based on Simon Wisenthal) and Gregory Peck as Mengele.
Lieberman gets a call from an enthusiastic young Jewish man (Steve Guttenberg) who has been staking out Third Reichers, including Menegle, in Paraguay. There is a devious plan of some sort brewing, the man exclaims to Lieberman's disbelieving ears. The kid gets too close and loses his life. When Lieberman eventually decides to investigate himself, his travels gradually reveal a complex plot involving murder, adoption, ova fertilization, and cloning that is explained in a lengthy scene with a university professor (Bruno Ganz).
This is all fascinating, and the idea that all of it could potentially occur will give many viewers pause, maybe even send the intended chill down one's spine. There are some potent moments, but not enough to temper the plethora of laughs and overracting. And yes, this would be courtesy of the leads.
Olivier sports a bizarre high pitched accent and flails around. Peck, in a very uncharacteristic part, chews the scenery like never before, particularly during a Nazi ball. Watching the great actor go ballistic on a woman ("You ugly bitch!") is both hilarious and depressing. Then comes the finale, where the adversaries find themselves rolling on the floor in a lengthy fight. I've read that the actors had trouble nailing this scene as they could not stop laughing at its absurdity. Then come the Dobermans, and things get pretty ugly. And then one of the Nazi clone kids arrives, emitting a "Holy shit!" when he realizes just who is in his living room. Of course, he then has to take lots of pictures.
THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL therefore is little more than a globetrotting potboiler with a glossy veneer. The screenplay, filled with hysterical dialogue and racial slurs, could've easily been another '70s drive-in B movie. Perhaps the subject attracted the world class actors. Or maybe Olivier sought subsidization for an expensive rug he fancied.