Film Reviews

Clonesome Blues

In Groundhog Day, director Harold Ramis set forth a charmingly provocative proposition: even the most obnoxious and self-absorbed person could transform himself into a decent human being, provided he had enough time to keep working at it until he got it right. Bill Murray played an egomaniacal TV weatherman who became stuck in time, and found himself forced to go through the same 24-hour period over and over and over again. At first, he refused to take advantage of the opportunities offered by this strange magic. Eventually, however, he wised up sufficiently to seize the day, even if he had to repeat that day hundreds, if not thousands, of times.

Groundhog Day was a boffo box-office hit in 1993, and I'm sure much of its success could be attributed to Murray's marvelous comic performance. But I'm equally sure that, on some primal level, the movie also hit a responsive chord among overworked and under-fulfilled baby boomers, just at the right point in their lives. That is, the point when most of them -- well, let me be honest: most of us -- were beginning to begrudgingly acknowledge a painful truth: more than likely, we'll never get around to learning that foreign language, or mastering some musical instrument, or sitting still long enough to get a firm grip on this fluid and twisty thing we call life. Murray's character did what many of us would dearly love to do. He didn't merely stop to smell the roses. He somehow managed to stop the clock long enough to plant the seeds, nurture the buds and enjoy the roses in full bloom.

In that regard, Multiplicity, the latest film from Ramis, is a rude awakening from the pleasant pipe dreams of his Groundhog Day. Once again, Ramis has an imperfect protagonist who attempts to reinvent himself with the help of a convenient miracle. In this case, the lead character is a construction company executive, Doug Kinney (Michael Keaton), who is far less selfish, but also far more harried, than Bill Murray's TV weatherman. Kinney would like to devote more time to his work, and much more time to his wife (Andie MacDowell) and their children. He also would like to find a few days to complete the half-finished renovation of the family's home. (Jack DeGovia's crafty production design speaks volumes about the chaotic lives of the main characters.) And, yes, while he's wishing, Doug also would like some more time for himself.

Once again, Ramis gives his protagonist a shot at redemption through extraordinary circumstance. While overseeing construction at the aptly named Gemini Institute, Doug blows a gasket and erupts in a stressed-out rage. His frustration is noted by Dr. Owen Leeds (Harris Yulin), a geneticist who works just a little too hard at looking and sounding benign. In a more conventional movie, this guy would doubtless turn out to be some kind of mad scientist. But in the world according to Ramis (and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel), Dr. Leeds is a well-meaning fellow. It's just that his most well-intended efforts have unexpected consequences.

When Dr. Leeds announces, "I make miracles," he isn't exaggerating. He offers to clone Doug, so that our hero can be in two places -- and get twice as much done -- at the same time. It isn't surprising that Doug agrees to the experiment. It is even less surprising that complications arise.

At first, Doug No. 1 is content to handle the housework and child-rearing chores, while Doug No. 2 -- a rather more macho copy of the original -- takes charge in the workplace. Laura, Doug's wife, is greatly appreciative of what she sees as her husband's new interest in domestic matters, particularly since it frees her to go back to work. Eventually, however, Doug No. 1 tires of being Mr. Mom. That's when it's time for another trip to Dr. Leeds' office, to arrange for a Doug No. 3.

Multiplicity is extremely clever in the way it presents Doug and his clones as separate but equal slivers of the same psyche. Doug No. 2 is aggressively masculine -- the breadwinner as hunter-gatherer -- while Doug. No. 3 is a manifestation of Doug's "feminine" (i.e., neat, nice and nurturing) side. Eventually, there is a Doug No. 4, a "smudged carbon" of No. 2 who could be described as Doug's "inner child." Actually, he could be described just as accurately as a sweet-natured simpleton, but never mind: the division in Multiplicity is very close to inspired.

Of course, the trick wouldn't work without the cutting-edge special effects that enable all four characters to exist in the same frame at the same time, even to the point of touching and otherwise interacting. There is a scene early on where Doug No. 1 and Doug. No. 2 butt against each other like jubilant athletes, and it's even more astonishing than Eddie Murphy's split-personality morphing in The Nutty Professor.

But the most special effect in Multiplicity is Keaton's multifaceted and ingeniously nuanced lead performance. Or, to be more specific, lead performances. Costume designer Shay Cunliffe deserves ample credit for the more obvious distinctions among the four Dougs. (Note the way Doug No. 3's shirts always are pressed just so, while No. 2 seems to get progressively sloppier as the movie goes on.) But Keaton is the one who gracefully conveys the subtleties of expression and body language. To be sure, No. 4 calls for broad strokes and big gestures. But the other three Dougs call for quieter, less obvious differences, all of which Keaton provides with uncommon skill and superb comic timing.

Multiplicity is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, even when it settles for obvious and predictable gags. There is a restaurant scene, for example, that has Doug No. 1 having dinner with his wife at one table, while Doug No. 2 puts the moves on a co-worker at another table. One thing leads to another, and the result is some very familiar slapstick. But, hey, funny is funny, and at the very least, the scene should put a great big grin on your face.

And yet, for all that, there is a soberingly serious undercurrent to Multiplicity. And, no, I don't mean the one that Ramis and his writers obviously intend for us to notice. Yes, it's true, as the movie emphasizes, we have to slow down, set priorities, come to terms with limitations and take advantage of opportunities. (We should also acknowledge our inner children, I suppose, though sometimes I think the little brats are too pampered already.) But what's slightly unsettling about Multiplicity is the element of cautionary finger-wagging. In showing how cloning yourself really won't improve your life, or the lives of those around you -- like we really needed to be told this, right? -- Ramis appears to be turning his back on the very magic he used to tantalize us in Groundhog Day.

Perhaps this is a good sign, indicating that he's maturing as a filmmaker as well as a human being. Still, I don't think you have to be as delusional as Blanche DuBois to prefer magic over realism, at least when it comes to movie fantasies. Multiplicity is entertaining and amusing, and may even generate a few shocks of recognition among the stressed-for-success folks in its audience. But I don't think anyone will walk away from it with a rueful grin and a wistful feeling of, "Gee, if only that could happen to me ...."

Directed by Harold Ramis. Starring Michael Keaton and Andie MacDowell.
Rated PG-13.
110 minutes.

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Joe Leydon