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A Great Guy to Work With: When Stars Act Opposite Themselves

When it comes to screenwriting techniques, there
aren’t many as fun and frugal as having multiple copies of your character in a
movie. From a symbolic perspective, the double serves as an outlet for author
commentary on the lead character, providing a funhouse-mirror look at who the
protagonist could become and what aspects of them are defined by nature or nurture.
It’s also a comedic goldmine. After all, who hasn’t wanted a twin for the sole
purpose of causing all manner of hilarious misunderstandings? So, in preparation
for Jack & Jill, which will see
funny-man Adam Sandler playing both of the titular twins, let’s have a look at
some of the best cases for doubling down on actors. Be warned though, as what
follows has more than enough *spoilers* for two

Some of the best
examples of twin-cinema come from when it’s used sparingly, playing off of a
character suddenly meeting their exact replica. Duck Soup set a high bar for the concept with Groucho and Harpo
Marx
giving an eerie and hilarious display of symmetry in the famous mirror
scene. It speaks to costuming and supreme comic timing that, without trick
photography or being actual twins, these two managed to turn two minutes of pantomime
into one of the most memorable comic set pieces ever made.

Of course, it’s now much
easier to duplicate an on-screen character, something that’s been a cornerstone
of the Austin Powers films. Mike
Meyers
’ randy comic creation finally met his match at the climax of The Spy who Shagged Me, which had Austin
travelling back in time ten minutes to assist his former self in saving the
world and getting the girl. Paradoxes be damned, the back-and-forth between the
mystery men makes for some great moments of Austin’s self-love getting a proper
outlet, the highlight being an excitedly suggested threesome that’s two parts
himself. The implications of such an endeavour are so mind-boggling bizarre
that pretty much the only logical response is to giggle at the concept.

Though a character as likeably
vain as Austin Powers might enjoy a copy of himself running around, having a
doppelganger isn’t always a laugh riot. A twin can be your buddy, or
your replacement. The latter proves literal in Duncan Jones’ mesmerizing sci-fi
one-man show, Moon, which featured
Sam Rockwell as the sole resident of a lunar gas mining operation. Waiting for
his chance to return home, a rover accident appears to leave Sam doomed, which
makes it shocking when we discover him awakening back at the base. But with
Sam’s restlessness and suspicion at a new high, he ventures back out onto the
surface and find’s the crashed moon buggy… with him still in it.

Once the “original” Sam
is safely returned, Rockwell starts to pull double duty as he susses out with
himself just what’s going on. It’s a great dynamic, as what should be the
easiest friendship in the world becomes complicated by the question of which of
them is a clone. Imagine their surprise when it’s revealed that neither astronaut is the real Sam Bell, the
original having returned home years ago after a series of short-lived clones
were left behind to continue his work. The revelation makes us wonder if the
true Sam was complicit in this operation, and with a “clean-up” crew being sent
by their nefarious benefactors, the stranded Sams unite to get back to earth
and expose the truth. In a bittersweet finale, the “new” Sam makes it home
thanks to the sacrifice of the “old” Sam, who finds solace in knowing that
despite his own death, Sam Bell will live on.

Though Sam Bell’s
replicates were able work out their identity issues, some clones never get the
chance. The morality of exploiting what is in essence yourself plays a big part
in The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s
grim and twisting tale of competing magicians. The film explores duality both
natural and manufactured, as the skilful but conservative showman Angier (Hugh Jackman) finds
himself unable to find the key to his rival Borden’s (Christian Bale) latest and greatest trick.
The man can seemingly transport himself across a stage, entering one door and
exiting another without pause or sign of fakery, an illusion that Angier believes
originates from a certain well-known mad scientist. But like any good trick, the
solution is actually much simpler: Borden has a twin, a lifelong secret used to
further the twins’ aspirations for greatness. Rather than leading separate
lives, the Borden’s create a single life of greatness, sharing all the triumph
and pain that comes along with it.

As if that weren’t
already enough of a head-screw, Nolan takes the concept one step further by
unveiling that Angier’s lust for revenge has created a twin for his act as
well. With a little help from Nikola Tesla, Angier employs a machine that
teleports him across an entire theatre, something even the Borden boys couldn’t
have done. But in a shocking flashback, we find out that the machine is
actually a duplicator, with Angier’s first trial creating a clone of himself. To
ensure the secrecy of the act, the Angier that remains onstage is dropped into
a water chamber to drown, with the other Angier appearing fifty feet away to
distract the audience and take the glory. Though Angier’s willingness to commit
selficide is fascinating in and of itself, the final, killer detail to the plan
is that Angier is never sure if the machine is teleporting him or the clone to
safety. It suggests that either the original Angier continues to live and kill
his copies or that the original man has died and each clone is willing to
continue with the act, knowingly risking his life so that the act can live on. 

While these last few
films have played with the idea of dualism through means and science and
subterfuge, an old favourite when it comes to doubles is the comically
mismatched twins. Though The Great Muppet
Caper
would have us believe that Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear are cinema’s
most unlikely set of identical twins, Spike Jones’ Adaptation manages to make a pair of Nicholas Cages seem as
distinguishable as night and day.

In one of the most transparent examples of art
imitating life, Nic Cage plays protagonist Charlie Kaufman, a screenwriter
struggling to adapt a novel about orchids, while his couch-crashing boor of a
brother Donald also seeks his fortune in the scriptwriting industry. Adaptation was written by the real
Charlie Kaufman as an outlet for his own frustrations caused by trying to adapt
the novel The Orchid Thief, drawing
on his own issues as a kind of cathartic and self-loathing Mary Sue writing. He
even went as far as to credit a fake Donald Kaufman with help on the script, so
as to properly parallel the film.

Whereas the Charlie of Adaptation is a neurotic whose somewhat
narcissistic belief in his own higher standards is matched only by his social
impotence, Donald indulges in his own obliviousness so as to better enjoy life.
Charlie is committed to the integrity of the book so thoroughly that it drives
him half insane, which is the polar opposite of Donald who’s blissfully
ignorant of his hack writing skills, especially when his script about a serial
killer with multiple personalities sells for millions. The slight differences
in apparel aren’t even necessary to distinguish the two, as Cage adopts unique vocal
patterns and mannerisms for each twin to go along with their conflicting personas.

It’s when the brother’s
come together on the “Orchid” script that Charlie learns to overcome his
self-doubt, a lesson from Donald he sadly only learns when his brother dies in
the sort of rote car chase that Charlie swore to never put in his screenplay.
The capper to the whole affair is the suggestion that Donald is actually just a
figment of Charlie’s imagination, an idea ironically dismissed by Charlie as a
tired plot device, but one that’s supported by the framing of the brothers and
the knowledge that Charlie Kaufman invented a brother in real life just to
write a screenplay. Though the truth is woven into the fiction too densely to
find any certainty, both interpretations provide a great story on what it’s
like to have to a live everyday with a reflection of yourself.

Those are some of my
favorite examples of twin-cinema, and with Jack
and Jill
leaning full bore into the premise, who knows where it might lead.
Will Sandler’s twin be revealed as a malevolent clone? Is Jill a wayward
time-traveler? Or is the concept of Adam Sandler talking to himself in drag
enough to sell a movie? Check Player Affinity this weekend to find out!

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