Every so often, a major movie star – usually a male comedian – will be given an opportunity to showcase their talent in multiple roles within a single film. Alec Guinness did Kind Hearts and Coronets, Mike Myers did the Austin Powers movies, Jerry Lewis did The Family Jewels, Eddie Murphy did Coming to America (and a bunch of others), Peter Sellers did Dr. Strangelove... the list goes on. Some of these flicks are better than others, obviously, and the ones worth remembering tend be the ones that have good ideas beyond “Joe Q. Actor plays five different parts!” That's the problem with the Michael Keaton vehicle Multiplicity: it's too dependent on Keaton's considerable talents, filling in the gaps with sitcom cliches and creaky storytelling.
Keaton plays Doug Kinney, an ordinary middle-class guy who just can't seem to find enough hours in the day to get everything done. He's under so much pressure at work that he's unable to spend much time with his wife Laura (Andie MacDowell, Four Weddings and a Funeral) or his two kids (Zack Duhame and Katie Schlossberg). Now Laura wants to start working again, too, which means that Doug will need to start taking on more responsibilities at home – something he simply doesn't have time for. If he eases back his hours at work, he'll get fired. If he refuses to let Laura get a job, he'll hurt his marriage. So, Doug has a meeting with his acquaintance Dr. Leeds (Harris Yulin, Frasier) and arranges to clone himself (as one does).
The clone is an exact replica of Doug, and shares all of his memories right up to the moment of cloning. As such, the clone (who is named “Lance” for clarity purposes) is well-equipped to handle any of Doug's responsibilities. Doug and Lance agree on an arrangement: Lance will handle all of Doug's work responsibilities, while Doug himself will deal with things on the domestic front. Of course, Doug can't tell Laura about the existence of his clone, so Lance has to take up residence elsewhere and make sure that he and Doug are never in the same place at the same time. If Doug and Lance had been content to make the most of this arrangement, it might have worked out well for both of them – but they get greedy for more free time, and soon enough there are two more clones (dubbed “Rico” and “Lenny”) running around.
It's easy to overlook thanks to the conventional nature of the movie, but Keaton's performance is genuinely terrific. Over time, the three Doug clones begin to develop their own personalities, and Keaton makes all four of his character distinctive without turning any of them into broad stereotypes. Doug himself is the perpetually frazzled, stressed-out schemer. Lance is a confident, boorish alpha male who doesn't really like being told what to do. Rico is a kind, gentle metrosexual charmer with a penchant for cooking and crafting. Finally, Lenny is... well, let's call him a “dim bulb” (an unfortunate side effect of being a clone of a clone). Keaton demonstrates a wide range of comic expressiveness, and manages to be refreshingly subtle in every mode. He also generates terrific chemistry with the assorted incarnations of himself, which is no small feat.
Alas, Multiplicity traps this bravura performance within a terminally dull framework, tossing Doug and the clones into one predictable narrative cul-de-sac after another. Doug and Lance wind up in the same restaurant at the same time, and both have to hide around corners and engage in all sorts of schizophrenic behavior to distract their respective dates (Doug insists that he's the only one allowed to get romantic with Laura, so the clones engage in their own romantic pursuits). Lance gets sick on the day he's supposed to handle a big work responsibility, so Rico (who hasn't done any research on the work project) has to fill in and fumble his way through. One suspects that each page of the screenplay had the words, “Eh, Keaton will make this tolerable,” written at the bottom.
Despite the considerable effort the movie puts into making the complicated special effects convincing, the writing is awfully sloppy and often defies its own internal logic. Consider the aforementioned scenario in which Rico has to fill in for Lance. It makes sense that Rico doesn't know much about the specific construction project Lance has been working on, but why doesn't he know anything about construction? If he actually has all of Doug's old memories, he should be enough of an expert to fake his way through the situation, but Rico acts as if he doesn't know what a 2x4 is. And how is the whole financial situation working out, anyway? If Doug is having money problems before the clones arrive, how is he managing to keep all of them housed, fed and entertained without going broke? And how is it possible for a human being to be as dim-witted as Laura seems to be? Time and time again, the movie requires Laura to be completely stupid in order to prevent her from figuring out what's going on. Even when she finally sees the clones together, she still doesn't put the pieces together (“You know you love someone when you see them everywhere,” she sighs happily). It's a classic example of what Roger Ebert called The Idiot Plot.
Multiplicity flopped at the box office, making back less than half of its budget. While director Harold Ramis survived the misfire (his next movie was the wildly successful Analyze This), Keaton's career took a big hit. That seems unjust considering that Keaton is easily the best thing about the movie, but Hollywood does as Hollywood does. The reasoning must have been that if moviegoers didn't like a movie featuring tons of Michael Keaton, they must not like Michael Keaton. I suspect that what moviegoers really didn't like was seeing a five-star gourmet pasta dish buried under canned spaghetti sauce.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Year: 1996