Twins (1988)

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fourstar

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Comedic director Ivan Reitman is perhaps best known for his 80s trinity of goofball collaborations with sad sack enigma Bill Murray: Meatballs, Stripes, and (if the piss babies who light up internet message boards are to be believed) the most beloved comedy of all time, Ghostbusters. What’s funny to me is that Reitman has collaborated on just as many comedic properties with an entirely different type of 1980s personality: Arnold Schwarzenegger. The first three Schwarzenegger films that could comfortably be considered straight-forward comedies (Kindergarten Cop, Junior, and Twins) were all helmed by Reitman. It’s a director-actor collaboration that may not have inspired much critical praise in its time, but did help steer & reshape Arnold’s career into the more kid-friendly (yet still violent) territory of titles like The Last Action Hero & T2: Judgement Day that inspired many lifetime fans of the Austrian galoot’s oddly affable screen presence (myself included). The first of these collaborations, 1988’s Twins, was a movie that had somehow slipped by me until now and I feel forever foolish for living so much of my life without it. I should have grown up with this Arnold-Reitman classic as a youngster. I really liked it as an adult, but I would’ve loved it as a scamp.

Twins’s living cartoon narrative is blatantly written around its improbable casting. The film is strange, modern fairy tale that starts once upon a time in a science lab where six successful, elite men (athletes, professors, the like) and one beautiful woman donate their reproductive faculties to an experiment meant to create the world’s finest human specimen. Arnold Schwarzenegger portrays the result of that experiment (duh), the buffoonish supergenius Julius Benedict, who’s just as inhumanly strong & intelligent as he is devoid of common sense. The unintended side effect of the experiment and, naturally, Julius’s twin, is Vincent Benedict, a weird little sex magnet sleazeball played with pitch perfect hubris by Danny DeVito. Ignoring the “master race” Nazi ideal implications of this comedic setup, the casting of Schwarzenegger & DeVito in their respective roles as “the most fully developed human the world has ever seen” & “the crap that was left over” is pure, inspired genius, a dynamic that never stops being amusing over the film’s entire runtime. Twins finds particular delight in contrasting the two strangely loveable actors’ wildly disparate statures by dressing them in matching outfits & having them synchronize their movements in simple tasks like eating breakfast & washing their hands. It’s what the WWE refers to as “twin magic.” Not satisfied with hammering the point home in this endlessly repeated gag, the entire joke is capped off with the concluding punchline, “I just can’t get over how alike they are!” just before the end credits. It’s all wonderfully silly & relentlessly good-natured (except maybe for some stray Adventures in Babysitting-type indulgences in Reagan Era fears of the big city).

Twins ostensibly knows that the inherent silliness of its comedic setup doesn’t leave much room for small concerns like plot or character development, but instead of avoiding those storytelling requirements it doubles down & attempts to tackle them head on. There’s no less than four plots at work in Twins: one in which the titular duo embark on a cross-country road trip to meet their estranged parents; one where Vincent teaches Julian the value of street smarts & Julius returns the favor with the value of familial love; one where both brothers become romantic targets for women who find their respective physicalities irresistible; and one where they’re, no joke, hunted down by a mafia hitman from whom they unwittingly steal precious, illegal cargo. As if that all weren’t overwhelming enough, the film also attempts to have a lot to say about the nature vs nurture conundrum as well as the effect privilege has on someone’s life trajectory (the well-adjusted Julius was raised by a wealthy scientist; the slimeball Vincent was abandoned at an orphanage). It’s as if Twins knew its premise couldn’t possibly sustain any kind of worthwhile narrative or emotional investment, so it intentionally ate up its own runtime with an nonstop barrage of subplots & asides to hang its Schwarzenegger big/DeVito small visual gags off of. Whether or not this formula was intentional, it’s entirely successful and by the time it faces a climax at the same vague industrial complex all 80s films seem to end at, the whole thing feels remarkably silly & delightfully convoluted.

I’ve been doing my best in recent years to establish my own personal tradition of watching an annual Schwarzenegger film on my birthday, which is how I ended up watching Twins for the first time at the ripe age of 30. As an Arnold showcase, the film did not disappoint (no offense meant to DeVito, who was perfectly amusing as the con artist straight man). Casting the typically meathead-typecast Schwarzenegger as a supergenius was, uh, super genius enough on its own, but the film goes a step further by robbing him of common sense due to an extremely sheltered childhood, so that he’s some kind of an oxymoronic genius-idiot. This leads to a bottomless wealth of classic Schwarzenegger comedy bits, some as simple as watching him eat ice cream, pose with a Rambo poster, or misunderstand idioms in lines like, “Thank you for the cookies. I’m looking forward to tossing them.” The film even works in a reading of his classic Terminator line “I’ll be back,” because of course it does. Arnold’s consistently wonderful screen presence makes Julius an impossibly endearing goof, especially in moments when he butchers the Coasters song “Yakety Yak” in his incredibly thick Austrian accent or when he doesn’t recognize that he’s being shamelessly hit on by a ready-to-pounce Kelly Preston or robbed by violent street toughs. Julius will even go as far as apologizing when said robbery doesn’t go well, explaining of a fallen reprobate who fails to nab his briefcase, “I did nothing. Pavement was his enemy.”

Arnold had already halfheartedly tried his hand at comedy in his narrative film debut Hercules in New York, but that work is more unintentionally funny than anything & uses the bodybuilder exclusively for the size of his pecs, not his impeccable sense of comedic timing. Twins is where Schwarzenegger truly found his comedic voice and it arrived in a perfect moment for him to bounce that voice off his mismatched twin DeVito & a hilariously dated onslaught of cheesy 80s fashion & pop music trash. It seems that this good will won’t be forever buried in the oversized suit jackets & greasy ponytails of the past either. Just as Paul Feig was allowed to “ruin” childhoods in his recent remake of Ivan Reitman’s crown jewel, Ghostbusters, Reitman himself is attempting to revive the Twins property for a modern audience in an announced, decades-late sequel titled Triplets. The premise of Triplets would bring back Schwarzenegger & DeVito as Julius & Vincent, bowling them over with the discovery that they actually share a birthday with a third brother/wombmate, played by none other than Eddie Murphy. It’s a plot twist that makes absolutely no goddamn sense for so, so many reasons, but that didn’t stop the original Twins from being thoroughly delightful & I’m more than ready for Arnold to make a comeback to his comedy career, so I say bring it on. As long as the film ends with the line “I just can’t get over how alike they are,” I’m sure I’ll be happy.

-Brandon Ledet

The Skeleton Twins (2014)

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fourstar

In the WWE there’s a little used, very illegal tactic of winning matches known as “twin magic“. This particular form of cheating occurs when wrestlers Brie & Nikki Bella swap places mid-match beyond the ref’s comically limited vision and use their identical twin likeness to win in a dire situation. It’s typical heel behavior, but also very specific to their sisterly gimmick (and also amusing because they barely look similar to one another at this point in time). I mention all this because the idea of “twin magic” exists far beyond the wrestling ring & the concept of confusing twin identities. “Twin magic” can also refer to, in my mind at least, the inexplicable mental link twins seem to have on an almost telepathic level. Twins can sometimes relate to each other in a supernaturally close, metaphysical kind of way that strains our understanding of the basic ways two human minds can communicate with one another. Their connection is, in a word, “magic”.

The recent indie drama The Skeleton Twins opens with an example of “twin magic”much more bleak than any you’re likely to see between pro wrestling’s The Bella Twins. The film opens with estranged twins (played by SNL vets Bill Hader &  Kristen Wiig) both preparing to commit suicide in bathtubs on opposite ends of the country. Spooky. Hader’s attempt is the more “successful” of the two & the shock of the news of her brother’s anguished state brings Wiig to stage a reconciliation after a decade apart. This is about as dark of a place as a movie can start off and, indeed, The Skeleton Twins is sadistically committed to piling on even more tragedy from there. A fuzzy childhood memory of a parent’s death, a past controversy involving a teacher’s sexual exploits with an underage student, and a current struggle with substance & sexual addiction all weigh heavily on the film’s grim proceedings. Another bit of “magic” at work here, however, is how the film’s talented cast & understated writing keep this tragedy from feeling soul-crushingly dour. It’s a sad film, for sure, but it also can be soulfully uplifting & deliriously funny in spurts.

Hader & Wiig have incredible chemistry from their SNL days that sells the The Skeleton Twins‘s central sibling bond much more comfortably & believably than would even be necessary for the movie to work. Wiig has delivered so many of these depressive, self-hating performances in past projects like Welcome to Me & The Diary of a Teenage Girl that at this point her dramatic chops are even more finely tuned than her comedic ones. Hader is more of the newcomer in the soul-crushing cinema game & it’s genuinely fascinating to watch him embody what his character calls “another tragic gay cliche” in a way that feels realistic enough to be genuine. Hader’s twin is more of a tightrope in terms of characterization, since his effete homosexual mannerisms could easily devolve into caricature, but the actor pulls it off in a wholly convincing, endearing way (despite his theater kid theatricality & gothy acerbic sarcasm). Oddly enough, it’s Luke Wilson who steals the show on the comedic front, playing a naive “Labrador retriever” of a dopey husband. Wilson is so on point in this role that he can make the simple act of eating a frozen waffle & talking about his shoes a total knee-slapper of a character beat. Hader & Wiig are more in charge of the film’s lowkey line of pitch black dramedy and it’s their intimate exchanges of sour worldviews & mental anguish that make the film sing in its own quiet, understated way.

I was just complaining that the recent indie drama Adult Beginners failed to coalesce its interesting ideas & talented cast into a cohesive product above anything beyond basic mediocrity. The Skeleton Twins is a perfect example of how the same approach of small stakes understatement & depressive humor can work when it’s handled a little more confidently. The film’s Halloween costume motif is a great example of how a metaphor can be developed with very simple gestures (in this case linking current familial tragedies to ones buried in the past) instead of the way Adult Beginners briefly addresses its central swimming lessons metaphor without any clear intent for its meaning. Both films are, perhaps, exercises in small ambition indie drama, but The Skeleton Twins makes the formula work in an engaging, even devastating way. I don’t know if it’s a case of better writing or the “twin magic” performances of Hader & Wiig that make the difference, but The Skeleton Twins is a shining (and depressing) example of the lowkey indie dramedy done exactly right.

-Brandon Ledet