Cinema: Double The Pleasure

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TWINS Directed by Ivan Reitman; Screenplay by William Davies, William Osborne, Timothy Harris, Herschel Weingrod

First thought, on looking at the billboard: nice idea; angry, bustling little Danny DeVito and cool, self-ironical, hulking Arnold Schwarzenegger as twins. Should be funny.

Second thought, at the box office: hope they don't screw it up.

For if recent movie history teaches anything, it is that the higher the comedy concept -- that is to say, the simpler it is to grasp -- the harder people seem to work at trying to lower it. If the project is one of those rare ones that have a possibility of appealing to practically everybody, the ( filmmakers are tempted to ensure that the last cipher in the least-common- denominator audience receives its message loud and clear (especially loud). Hey, his six bucks (or seven) is as good as anyone else's, isn't it?

The good news about Twins is that this temptation has been sternly resisted. And there is no bad news about it: no shocking language, no pants-dropping vulgarity, no desperately paced action designed to disguise witlessness. The movie's serene self-confidence encourages the viewer to settle back comfortably and just let it happen. And this is all the more surprising in that director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Legal Eagles) has in the past sometimes not known when he should leave well enough alone.

Obviously, Julius Benedict (Schwarzenegger) and Vincent Benedict (DeVito) are fraternal, not identical, twins. They are the spawn of a Government-funded experiment in which a carefully selected woman is artificially inseminated with a spermatozoic cocktail to which six males have each made a high-grade genetic contribution. Julius, brainy, built and, as it happens, morally impeccable, is the predictable result. Vincent is the unanticipated consequence.

Both babies are immediately taken from their mother, and those concerned are led to believe she did not survive the delivery. Julius is brought up in a perfectly controlled environment, where he learns everything that can possibly be gleaned from books. Vincent is placed in an orphanage, from which he escapes to become a petty and entirely unsuccessful con man on L.A.'s meaner streets. In short, neither is equipped for ordinary life, and each needs the other to become a fully functioning human being.

It is, of course, earnest Julius who initiates the search for his long-lost brother. But after the pair are reunited, Vincent gets the most out of their partnership: a gorgeous set of muscles to help him fend off debt collectors and a moral exemplar who finally sets him on the path of righteousness. Still, Julius doesn't come off badly: he learns to drink beer, chat up girls and use a microwave. Both stars are expert at playing dumb in highly contrasting ways, and their search for their mother has its touching aspects. The whole movie has a warmth about it that never slops over into sentiment: there is much more here than tall-guy, short-guy jokes.