Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 02 February 2009
Source Vestron Video VHS
Only Kurt Vonnegut could write a story in which the world’s ugliest babies - Neanderthaloid twins named Wilbur and Eliza Swain - are also its salvation: when they put their heads together, the two unruly giants become endowed with an unprecedented genius, able to solve not only questions of quantum physics, but also of Constitutional intent, societal reconstruction, and pediatrics, among many others. Naturally, the world around them refuses their inner gifts in favor of persecuting them for their outer appearance; they are shut away in a mansion situated far away from their dismayed parents, their lives guided by a full-time staff and young doctor named Mott. By the novel’s close, Wilbur resides in an abandoned Manhattan with his grandchildren, a neighbor, and her willing slaves; a centenarian and former President of the United States, he reminisces about the world he left behind - full of two-inch-tall, isolationist Chinese men and women who colonize Mars without spacecrafts - and the world he lives in now, where gravity fluctuates daily, a plague has emptied New York City, and states have kings.
These wonderfully strange and often heartbreaking aspects of Vonnegut’s novel are abandoned, wholly and completely, by Steven Paul, writer and director of Slapstick of Another Kind, who adds an ever greater amount of paranormality - unnecessary, we soon realize - while simultaneously removing any sense of humor. In Paul’s adaptation, the title of which is often written with parenthesis - Slapstick (of Another Kind), perhaps as a postproduction touch to greaten the distance between the film and its original source - Wilbur and Eliza are the offspring of an alien father, portrayed in a bookending voiceover by Orson Welles that acts more as a poor man’s rendition of Brando’s Jor-El than anything else. The twins, played under heavy prosthetics by Jerry Lewis and Madeline Kahn, are born to the nervous Swains, Caleb and Lutetia—also Lewis and Kahn, though now sans any make-up and looking especially unnoteworthy. John Abbott is Doctor Frankenstein, the family’s multi-purposed physician, and the kids’ caretaker is a hybrid of Peter Lorre and Chauncey Gardner named Sylvester, played by Marty Feldman. Added to that cast is Samuel Fuller as Sharpe, a cigar-chomping boot-camp commander who trained under General Custer, as well as Pat Morita, whose two-inch Chinese ambassador Ah Fong roams the United States in what appears to be a large, floating, computerized taco. And Jim Backus is the President of the United States, a bumbling, Lyndon-like Commander-in-Chief who presides over a nation now fueled by chicken-droppings; what the country needs, he confesses to an assistant midway through the film, is a bright new solution, and he hopes to find one in the Swain twins.
The only problem is that Wilbur and Eliza, thinking society values stupidity over intelligence, as personified by their own selfish and self-indulgent caretakers, have spent much of their lives behaving like uncouth cavemen - that is, acting in tandem with people’s perceptions - by pouring food over each other, smashing furniture, and talking in nonsensical blathering. As in Vonnegut’s novel, Wilbur and Eliza’s collective genius comes through only in the privacy of their room, where they solve the world’s many problems with apparent ease, their contacting foreheads surrounded in the film by flashing rings of color.
One of the film’s greatest departures from the novel is in the character of the Chinese ambassador, named Fu Manchu on paper, who appears to Eliza looking for the twins’ old writings on gravity; after she acquiesces and the ambassador returns to China, the fluctuations begin. In the film, after Ah Fong is interviewed from a crock-pot by a very racist Merv Griffin - played, as it happens, by Griffin himself - he tries and fails to gain the twins’ secrets, preempted by the return of Wilbur and Eliza’s alien father in a monstrous, glowing-blue, Spielbergian space-craft that lands on the Swain mansion lawn. That departure, not to mention the alien background, robs us of any chance to see Wilbur as an old man presiding over plague-drained Manhattan Island, offering instead a moral denouement by Orson Welles accompanying images of brother and sister boarding the ship and disappearing into a bright light, ala Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Still, it’s not the film’s biggest travesty. That dishonor belongs to Jerry Lewis and Madeline Kahn, two comedic geniuses in their own rights who reduce even naturally-acting - that is, smart, without the façade of stupidity - Wilbur and Eliza to offensive caricatures of the cognitively disabled. Sporting bulbous foreheads and protruding false teeth, even their wisest and most profound statements are borderline farce, delivered with wide eyes and cheeky smirks. Unlike the novel, in which the twins’ revelation causes even greater internal consternation in their parents - a belief that they were neglecting two unreachable social outcasts suddenly trumped by the realization that, as Vonnegut writes, “it was all right if [they] could not love us, since we were incapable of deep feelings, and since there was nothing about us, objectively, that anyone in his right mind could love” - the equivalent scene in Slapstick of Another Kind is accompanied by a lecture from the parents on incest. Not long afterwards, Wilbur and Eliza are separated, with Wilbur sent to Sharpe’s camp, where he’s made anonymous through Groucho glasses and electro-shock conditioning, and Eliza left to fend for herself in the large mansion, essentially alone.
On a technical level, Steven Paul’s film is simply a mess. The noise that accompanies the arrival of Ah Fong’s taco-ship is lifted from the soundtrack of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: the unmistakable whirls and pops of the Wonkamobile. The settings, props, and special effects used to heighten the level of “slapstick” are too intermittent and amateurish to have any real, consistent effect, and the desperately random camera angles and cinematographic flares - double-speed scenes ala the Three Stooges and Benny Hill, centered close-ups that break the Forth Wall, including one in which Jerry Lewis’ Wilbur not only stares into the camera but manhandles it - seem like Paul’s attempts at making a connection between the twins’ attempt at acceptance and the process of filmmaking, at making the “of Another Kind” portion of the title count for something, but they fall flatter than flat.
There is little saving grace here. Jim Backus’s performance as the exasperated, bespeckled, and nameless President is unquestionably the best, tinged as it is by knowledge that it’s one of the great man’s last performances, a sentiment also applicable to Orson Welles and Marty Feldman, both of whom would pass away within five years of the film’s release. He’s a source of odd simplicity; there is comparatively nothing special about his character - the President is, for lack of a better term, the only normal figure - and every line he delivers is genuine to the core, even when discussing the smelly barnyard waste that fuels his nation. It’s a vexing mix that appears in only one other character, that of Caleb Swain, who is likewise depicted as bespeckled and annoyed; and were he the only character Lewis played, he might be forgiven for participating in such a dire little adventure, as enjoyably bad as it often can be. Slapstick may not be Kurt Vonnegut’s best novel, but it certainly didn’t deserve this.