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DIRECTED BY: Steven Paul
FEATURING: Jerry Lewis, Madeline Kahn,, Pat Morita, Jim Backus, voice of
PLOT: A pair of rich, American, and (allegedly) beautiful parents give birth to hideously ugly and mentally-challenged twins, who turn out to be super-intelligent aliens implanted by a galactic civilization to fight back against the Chinese.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Slapstick tries hard to reach comedy by piling on the surrealism, and ends up just being surreal. This is a time-honored path to mediocrity taken by many a crashed comedy, but adding in the ham-handed Hollywood fumbling of Papa Kurt’s source material is the icing on this insanity.
COMMENTS: We’re coming up on a review of Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) so I opted to review Slapstick of Another Kind (1982) first, as an aperitif. I choose it for this honor solely because I consider Slapstick to be the weirdest Kurt Vonnegut adaptation I have seen so far. But don’t mistake this for praise: this movie is mostly unfunny and a chore to sit through. Reading the book first helps, but only a little.
As bad as Slapstick is, it has several million more miles of hell to plunge through before it lands at the same level of awful as Breakfast of Champions (1999). Slapstick has a coherent and logical structure and attempts to make good use of Vonnegut’s novel. Somebody gave at least a fraction of a rat’s ass about it. Most admirably, it feebly attempts to capture the spirit and letter of Vonnegut’s ethereal humor, sometimes catching a whiff, but often losing the scent. When it fails, it settles for sight gags, prop comedy, and actual pratfalls. It’s a mix with a rough texture to choke down.
Caleb and Letitia Swain (Jerry Lewis and Madeline Kahn) are well-to-do glamorous celebrities who give birth to hideous fraternal twins, boy and girl. Meanwhile, China has announced that it’s severing all ties with the rest of the human race because the Chinese are just too advanced to talk to the rest of us anymore. Among their other achievements, they’ve mastered miniaturization, shrinking themselves to inches in height. This news is delivered in an interview between a newscaster (Merv Griffin) and the Chinese ambassador (Pat Morita), who travels about in a fortune-cookie-sized flying saucer. Cut to 15 years later. The twins, Wilbur and Eliza (also played by Lewis and Kahn), mature in isolation, tended to by Dr. Frankenstein (John Abbott) and butler Sylvester (Marty Feldman). The adult twins are truly disturbing to behold and act insane, but this is actually a put-on because they feel people want them to be dumb. The Chinese ambassador, observing through planted spies, pays a call to the parents to inform them that their twins are actually secretly clever and advanced aliens. Since the parents haven’t bothered to check on their offspring in fifteen years, this comes as news to them, leading to a shocked reconnection between all parties concerned. There’s a drop-in visit from the president (Jim Backus), aboard an Air Force One equipped with lounge chairs, a giant red phone, and a caged zoo. All of the above makes for approximately one-tenth of an ensuing hijink.
Things that went wrong:
- Trying to cash in on the recent success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) by bringing in aliens, which were never in the novel. This decision appears to have played out via a film studio mogul chomping his cigar over the morning’s “Variety” and grunting at a lackey: “This alien thing is big money! What do we have in production? Kurt who? Never mind, put aliens in it or you’re fired!”
- The filmmakers make the Chinese a villainous race, with a touch less political correctness than you could comfortably afford (in Vonnegut’s novel this part was a throw-away parody of Cold War international tensions).
- They hire top-name comic talent and give them little funny to do; you cringe at these comedic geniuses counting the minutes on the clock and hoping this never gets released.
- It’s a shame that Vonnegut’s sugary parable about fixing humans (via artificial families) so that they aren’t such cruel bastards was cut out, as that’s half of the source novel, enfolding Vonnegut’s favorite humanist sermon.
Kurt Vonnegut, I say again, is one of the most impossible authors to translate into film, so I can’t hate the script for guessing which parts to keep and guessing wrong. You do hear Vonnegut’s dialogues in snatches throughout the movie, evidence that some poor bastard behind a typewriter strained their incompetent best at this embarrassing adaptation. Lewis, Kahn, Feldman, and the rest of the cast give it the old college try, with Feldman especially delivering a baffling performance that seems to be from a different movie. The running time has been chainsawed to a mercifully short 84 minutes, so it’s just barely watchable, with the right chemicals. In between the rare chuckles are bizarre scenes like Lewis and Kahn in giant baby onsies throwing food everywhere at lunchtime as they decorate Marty Feldman with spaghetti—you can’t say that you see that every day. (Indeed, ABDL fetishists might even want to pause this scene.) Critics thrash this movie for being an insult to Vonnegut—true again—but compared to Breakfast of Champions, the crew here is almost worshipful. You can even skip the book and let the developments catch you more off-guard. Weird movie fans will find that Slapstick of Another Kind holds their hopeful attention, as it does throw some novelty scenes out there, but the gain is just barely worth the pain.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Paul threw out 70 percent of Vonnegut’s novel, destroyed its bittersweet tone, and gutted the author’s tricky voice out of the film for the sake of getting his near-geriatric star to flail his way through agonizing setpieces involving electroshock therapy and wearing a Groucho Marx getup while stumbling through army drills. Paul reduced a masterful exploration of the human condition into a fever-dream version of Hardly Working… Slapstick (Of Another Kind) ends with a syrupy attempt to infuse unearned sentimentality into a clattering parade of grotesques that couldn’t feel further removed from Vonnegut’s principled, unsentimental humanism.”–Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club