It’s been a while since
I’ve struck a decent high concept movie – one such as Powder (1995), about an
albino kid with mystical powers, zapped by lightning while he was still in his
mother’s belly. Actually, the 1990s generally seem to be a bit light-on in
terms of high concepts, making the whole trend seem like some relic of those dim,
dark days of the 1980s.
What did high concept
ever mean? It flags a somewhat nutty central idea or premise that drives
proceedings. Often it’s a lightly magical (even “magical realist”) or
supernatural idea, or a weird-science device. With very little backgrounding
explanation or justification other than it simply happens – and we all (whether dwelling inside or outside the movie)
just have to accept it and go on from there.
The Australian film Dating the Enemy (1996) has a very ‘80s-style high concept:
a boy and girl wake up one day and finding that they have switched bodies. One
of the final entries in the Hollywood wave of such fantasies was also likely
the best, or at least the apotheosis of this loose genre: Groundhog Day (1993), about a guy (played by Bill Murray) who wakes up each morning to find
that he is re-living the same day, not once through but over and over, until he
can work out a way to get out of the loop. [Postscript 1: This plot template is
still getting numerous variations worked on it in 2022, both in film and TV,
across comedy, horror, teen, SF, and New Age conceits.]
Groundhog Day was directed and co-written by Harold Ramis
[1944-2014], whose big hit Ghostbusters (1984) also
clocks in as one of the initial high concept extravaganzas. It would be quite
fair to say that nothing else in his career approached the achievement of Groundhog Day, which has deservedly
picked up a rather fervent cult. Certainly, Ramis’ subsequent Multiplicity, while superficially
similar in some respects, is no match for it.
In this film, the
high-con spice arrives thanks to the magic technology of cloning. Doug (Michael Keaton) is a harried Everyman with too much
to do and too little time – and no way of fulfilling his appointed roles as
father, husband and breadwinner. But, thanks to a benign scientist, Dr Leeds
(Harry Yullin), Doug can multiply himself and, hopefully, “have it all”.
This is the familiar
narrative model bequeathed to popular cinema by Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946): someone reaches a rut in his
daily life, prays for a miracle, and then faces the difficult consequences of
seeing that wish granted. By now, this fantasy story has been done so often,
and so badly, that it’s lost a lot of the force and meaning, the poignancy and
richness, that Capra once gave it.
Groundhog Day was also a neo-Capraesque fable of this
sort, but at least it had the canniness to explore its magical, time-loop
premise from every conceivable angle. It went all the way with its logic: every
variation of the high concept that popped into your head as you watched it
would suddenly appear before your eyes on screen. That is a rare feat indeed in
popular cinema. And Groundhog Day explored not only a wide range of gags, but also a wide range of moods, from
high farce to poignant melancholia. It became, unexpectedly, quite moving.
Multiplicity sorely lacks the inventiveness of Groundhog Day. The progressive logic of
its central cloning idea is just not there, not worked out in any way. We never
know why the successive clones of Doug have wildly different personalities –
not even the benign scientist mentions this, or motivates it somehow. The film
literally starts pulling new Doug clones out of the closet in the hope of
beefing up the laugh quotient. [Postscript 2: It is hard to avoid a
flashforward here to “Dougie”, one of Dale Cooper’s two clones, in David
Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return ,
a masterpiece of multiplicity!] After a while, we don’t even see Leeds’
laboratory; it just disappears like an insignificant subplot.
By the time the main plot
reaches Doug number 4, a mentally disabled goof who likes covering himself with
pizza, Ramis has hit the bottom of his trick basket. Why is Doug 4 disabled?
That’s what you find yourself distractedly asking, as a spectator, while the
movie bumbles along. Well, it’s because (at least the film does try to explain
this) he’s the clone of a clone, like a misregistered photocopy of a photocopy.
Now, why couldn’t we have had more moments of dizzy associative plot logic like
that, taken further still?
Technically, I had some
problems with Multiplicity – and I’m
not a critic who often makes technical criticisms. But I have to tell you that,
for all its expensive special effects, there are moments when it looks exactly
like a clunky TV episode of The Patty
Duke Show (1963-1966) – with four separate Keatons each contrivedly
mugging, waiting for their next line, and staring off into nowhere.
Is there something
worth talking about in this movie – some political, pop cultural or mythic
resonance? This may not make it a good film but, yes, there is something rather
curious going on inside the high concept of male cloning. You don’t have to be
an adoring fan of filmic “subtexts” to guess that Multiplicity addresses modern definitions of masculinity. Each
version of Doug represents a different male yearning: to be a romantic
wanderer, or a fixated kid, or a tough bloke, or a sensitive dandy.
But what’s that nagging
memory pounding in my head like a jackhammer? Ah yes, I’ve got it now: it’s the
very same Michael Keaton, 13 years previously, in a more-or-less forgotten,
ephemeral pop cinema success called Mr
Mom (1983). This was the comic variation in an early ‘80s cycle about men
in relation to parenting – Kramer vs Kramer (1979) with Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep was among the dramas in that wave.
At the time, I recall that the lightheaded comedy of Mr Mom had a few people worried. The movie seemed to be expressing
a benign but, in truth, insidious backlash towards feminism. Men in movies were
starting to put nappies on their kids, get in touch with their feminine side –
but, in the process, they seemed to be shoving women out of the domestic
Keaton as Jack Butler
in Mr Mom runs his home completely,
conquers everything. Where’s a woman, any woman, during this amazing
revolution? In fact, in at least some of these movies, women became demonised
figures, rather soulless harridans of the corporate world, obsessed with their
careers. The Three Men and a Baby films (1985, 1987 & 1990) and the Problem Child series (1990,
1991 & 1995) carried on these rather dubious anti-feminist sentiments under
the guise of raising men’s consciousness. Yet I couldn’t hate these movies,
because they sometimes did give some new, touching, funny images – however mangled and confused – of “the New Male”.
(Blake Edwards did it best, though.)
Multiplicity picks up these themes again, only
semi-successfully, for the 1990s. I said earlier that Doug tries to have it all. “Having it all” was a
slogan of that glamorous, upwardly mobile, consumable yuppie feminism of the 1970s
and ‘80s – a call to over-worked women to hold on to their kids, their career,
their marriage, their self; to enjoy all of that and not give up any of it. The
obvious stresses, sadnesses, regrets and even tragedies involved in having it
all became the subject of another bunch of movies in the ‘80s about modern
women and their over-crowded lives, such as Broadcast News (1987) and Baby Boom (1987). Among critics,
Judith Williamson provided the best and sharpest running commentary on this
cycle in her contemporaneous New
Statesman film review column in UK – pieces collected in her terrific book Deadline
at Dawn: Film Criticism 1980-1990 (Marion Boyars, 1993).
In many ways, Multiplicity is a new version of Mr Mom – in that deep-ideological sense
of offering the spectacle of a man moving into woman’s territory, taking over her
place and her story. Doug’s wife, Laura (Andie MacDowell), actually has her own
problems squaring work and marriage, autonomy and love – but you would hardly
know it, since this particular drama takes up so little screen time, and is so
perfunctorily handled. And, naturally there’s no cloning process happening for her – although I think a braver and better film, one more seriously entranced by
the possibilities of the central high concept, would have gone there (as
the hip saying goes).
There’s a lot happening
in the fine grain of Multiplicity that tells you it’s really, secretly, all about a man taking a woman’s place in
the home. This claim resembles what I dared suggest about all the obsessive
anal imagery in Independence Day (1996): once you admit the
possibility that it’s there, it’s absolutely everywhere, all over the film, uncontrollably, like a rash. And
likewise, there’s an awful lot of jokes and moments here harping on the fact
that Doug, because of cloning, is somehow becoming
a woman – an idea that also haunts Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor reboot (1996 & 2000).
Cloning is itself a
matter of reproduction – and Doug is a guy who discovers he can merrily
engender himself to infinity, without a Mom or any kind of female intermediary.
(Recall how Stanley Kubrick passed directly from Man to Star Child at the end
of 2001: A Space Odyssey , also without any female
collaboration!) When Doug first goes to the cloning lab, the crusty, affable old
Dr Leeds tells him pointedly to lie down and put his feet up in the stirrups. One
of the clones that eventuate from this whole process is a total sissy, more
conventionally feminine and far more passionately drawn to the minutiae of
domestic chores than Laura ever is. And this Doug-as-woman stuff just keeps
Naturally, Multiplicity is the type of reassuring
confection that eventually tries to reconcile all of Doug’s diverse yearnings
and personalities within the one, finite – and unambiguously hetero-male –
body. That’s part of the Capra legacy, too: a magical space opens, dreams come
true, wishes are granted, but all this heaven can be allowed only for a moment
– you work out your problems, get your excessive drives out of your system, and
then hightail it back to home and hearth, to wife and child. The problem is
that many of the wishes that have arisen for Doug in the course of this story
are simply discounted or mysteriously elided somewhere before the end.
Take, for instance, the
pesky problem of Doug’s sexual appetite, his desire to get it on with women
other than Laura. At one point we see him racing out of a restaurant with his work
secretary. Do they end up in her bed, as she has promised? We never find out,
because it’s as if admitting to such flagrant adultery would blow this film’s project
sky high. That’s exactly the sort of evasion going on in Murphy’s The Nutty Professor, too – where the
outrageous alter ego indulges in
orgies, but the nerdy Prof himself somehow remains intact, pure and innocent –
all back together again in the one person and body just right in time for the
The original Nutty
Prof, Jerry Lewis – himself very fond of multiplicity plots – signed off in
1963 on a more ironic and ambiguous note than that.
© Adrian Martin October 1996