The term "high concept" is less of a buzz-phrase than it was a decade ago, but its influence on Hollywood still lingers. For those who don't remember when '80s movie execs used to trot it out on talk shows, it refers to a commodity much loved by profit-minded producers: pictures with premises so simple and catchy that you can summarize them in a single sentence.
Pithiness is a fine idea if you're writing TV listings, bumper stickers, or fortune-cookie messages. But it seems a bit risky if a budget of $20 million or more is hanging on the 20 or 30 words your "high concept" contains.
Which brings us to "Multiplicity," the new Michael Keaton movie. It's easy to imagine the studio conference where some creative wizard glanced at a note pad, did a bit of modest throat-clearing, and proudly uttered the day's winning formula: "A guy who's too busy decides to get cloned, and each clone has a different personality, and his wife doesn't know who's the real him!"
It's not easy to sit through the movie spawned by this notion, though, proving once again that a picture can be simultaneously high in concept and low in entertainment value.
"Multiplicity" stars Keaton as Doug Kinney, a man with typical modern problems. His job is fulfilling but demanding, leaving him too little time with his family. He's so busy he forgets all about his daughter's graduation - it's only from Campfire Girls, but hey, that's important - and things can only get worse if his wife goes back to work, which she's itching to do.
The solution? Everyone has dreamed of it, but only in the movies could it really happen. A brilliant scientist strolls into the picture, announcing that miracles are his business and clones are his stock in trade. He straps our hero into a fancy machine, fiddles with some computer gear, and presto! - there's a duplicate Doug ready to relieve the actual Doug of life's extra burdens.
There's probably a funny film lurking in this idea - a high-tech variation on "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," say - but director Harold Ramis hasn't found it, even though he's a comedy specialist with first-rate farces like "Groundhog Day" and "National Lampoon's Vacation" on his resume. Although the movie offers an occasional chuckle, its energy level is low and its plot is all too predictable: More clones keep arriving, and like photocopies of photocopies, the quality is lower every time.
Keaton works hard to keep the picture from sinking, but you know he's lost the battle when Clone No. 4 is reduced to dumb-and-dumber jokes like shaving without a blade and storing pizza slices in his wallet. Andie MacDowell is appealing as Doug's wife, who doesn't know about the clones. But her dignity also takes a dive when the movie goes surprisingly smarmy in the second half, straining its PG-13 rating with a string of smirking bedroom jokes.
Maybe the film itself was cooked up by too many Hollywood clones. No fewer than five writers take credit for the screenplay, and they appear to have teamed up about as smoothly as Doug's dithering doubles, who always mean well but somehow land in one embarrassment after another. The special effects are impressive - look, mom, four Michael Keatons on the screen at once! - but in the age of "Independence Day" few viewers will find them particularly awesome.
At least the movie's ubiquitous ads may help some youngsters handle "multiplicity" at their next spelling bee. And if the movie flops as resoundingly as I expect, we won't have any sequel-clones to clutter our multiplexes next summer.
*'Multiplicity' has a PG-13 rating. It contains some violence, vulgar language, and a substantial amount of sexual innuendo and implied sexual activity.