Along with 1999’s Breakfast of Champions with Bruce Willis, Slapstick (Of Another Kind) is one of the worst adaptations of a Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. book to hit the big screen. Vonnegut’s darkly humorous novel about two deformed, retarded twins who become super-geniuses when putting their heads together was simply called Slapstick, but here the story is given a nonsensical subtitle and a pointless framing device involving spaceships and aliens to make it appear to be a parody of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But not just any parody; With the presence of actors like Madeline Khan and Marty Feldman, it’s plain they were trying to make audiences believe this was a Mel Brooks parody of Close Encounters. But director-writer Steven Paul is not even as funny as Mel Brooks in his Dracula: Dead and Loving It phase.
In 1982, Steven Paul was something of a wunderkind, listed by Guinness as the world’s youngest film producer. Of course, at that point he had just a few films under his belt. Since then, he’s gone on to make some of the worst movies on record, including Baby Geniuses, Karate Dog, SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2, and the movie that gave us a cross-dressing Gene Simmons, Never Too Young to Die (and if you watch Slapstick closely, you’ll find Never Too Young‘s techie Asian sidekick character Peter Kwong in a small role). So, all things considered, is this the guy you would pick to adapt Vonnegut?
The movie opens on a flying saucer that’s a total copy of the Close Encounters ship, while two aliens communicate in voiceover. One of the voices is provided by Orson Welles, long past his prime and just a few years shy of giving us the voice of Unicron in Transformers: The Movie. (Welles also narrated The History of the World: Part I, giving us yet another blatant Mel Brooks connection.) The two aliens discuss how they once granted a special gift of twin geniuses to the Chinese, and now the Chinese want to take over the world. So to counterbalance this, the aliens decide to give the Americans their very own pair of super-genius twins.
Cut to a maternity ward, where Caleb Swain (Jerry Lewis, twenty years since the last time he was funny, and probably twenty minutes since he stepped off the set of his MDA telethon) is anxiously waiting for his wife Lutetia (Madeline Khan) to give birth. It’s twins, but the couple is horrified to find that their children have come out disfigured.
At the same time, Merv Griffin [!], appearing as himself [!], is doing a live TV interview with the Chinese ambassador to the UN, played by Pat Morita [!]. And if all of this doesn’t sound bizarre enough to you, they’ve done an Incredible Shrinking Woman job on Morita and made him three inches tall. (Incredibly, Morita’s miniature state is never explained in the movie.) He shows up for the interview sitting in an empty rice bowl, with two tiny Sumo wrestlers on either side of him. (Yes, Chinese Sumo wrestlers. I guess the Japanese don’t have that particular market cornered.)
Morita, speaking in a high chipmunk voice, has come to inform all Americans in a not-so-subtle way to be on the lookout for a special set of twins. Then for no reason, he finishes up this spiel with, “Up your ass with Mobil gas!” Merv Griffin is aghast because “you can’t say ‘ass’ on network television!” Ah, the good old days…
Meanwhile, the revolted Swains immediately decide to give up their disfigured twins to a doctor named Frankenstein (great, now Steven Paul is directly ripping off jokes from Mel Brooks). Frankenstein takes the twins to a mansion where they’re cared for by a very strange cadre of servants, including a standard French maid in a black frilly dress, two Laurel and Hardy impersonators, and a top hat-wearing, champagne-swilling Marty Feldman as the master of the house.
Suddenly, the film jumps ahead fifteen years, and the first thing we learn is that gas is now $1000 a gallon (Boy, in the early ’80s, inflation sure was a bitch, wasn’t it?). Therefore, all cars now run on chicken droppings, which we’re told primarily for the purpose of setting up a few lame sight gags. Like this one, where a car rides up to the Swains’ mansion with a wire cage on top full of live chickens.
The privileged Swains have totally forgotten about their twin children, until suddenly they’re visited by a tiny, bad special effect. It turns out to be Pat Morita inside a small flying saucer that looks like a cross between a hoagie and an omelet. Morita informs them that their twins have grown up to be geniuses, and he wants the parents to meet them immediately.
Oh, and he’s also invited along the President of the United States, played by Jim Backus [!]. We first see him aboard Air Force One, which also no longer runs on normal jet fuel, and accordingly, the cabin is completely lined with chicken coops. This running gag also allows Backus to yell allegedly funny lines about “chicken shit” every ten minutes or so.
Soon, the Swains and the President finally meet the twins, Wilbur and Eliza, also played by Jerry Lewis and Madeline Khan. Their disfigurement, it seems, is that they’re incredibly tall, have large teeth and chins, and high, lumpy foreheads. When they (literally) put their heads together, Christmas tree lights go off in their wigs, and suddenly the twins can speak at length about theories of gravity. Unfortunately, when they’re apart, they devolve to the level of simpering idiots who can’t talk, can’t behave, and do nothing but throw food at each other and everyone else during meals.
The parents are horrified by this behavior, and when Wilbur tries to explain that he needs to touch his sister’s skin to get smarter, the mother immediately believes them to be having an incestuous relationship [?]. And so, the twins are split up, and Wilbur is sent to a school called “Foster’s Military School for Screwed-Up Boys”. For unknown reasons, Wilbur is forced to wear a pair of gag sunglasses complete with fake nose and bushy mustache. (Presumably, this is because he’s so hideous, but no one ever bothers to explain it.)
The rest of the movie consists of the forced and labored adventures of Eliza as she tries to break her brother out of military school, until finally the whole thing winds up with a literal deus ex machina, where the aliens from the opening scene descend in their spaceship to take Wilbur and Eliza away in a rote copy of the ending of Close Encounters. In the film’s one mildly amusing bit (which is all the more sad because it happens in the final five minutes), a glow surrounds the Swains’ house and a toy car rolls by itself, just like in Spielberg’s film. Except in this case, the toy car has a tiny chicken coop on top.
Okay, not laugh out loud funny, but at least that was an actual joke, something that’s in pretty short supply here. It seems director Paul decided that it was funny enough to simply turn on the camera and let his actors run around wildly for minutes on end, throwing things at each other and falling over each other and so forth. The problem with this approach is that, despite the title, all of the featured players here are far too old for slapstick. Of any kind. (Especially this kind, which seems to believe that “undercranked” is synonymous with “funny”.)
The only one who comes close to providing a humorous performance is Madeline Khan as the haughty, spoiled mother to the twins, and you can really see her struggling with her inner ice maiden, trying to find some reason to love them. But when she switches to her dual role as the daughter Eliza, Khan seems medicated. It’s almost like she quits trying to be funny about halfway through the movie. And don’t get me started on Lewis’ performance. Seeing him drag out his “nice lady!” voice decades after the fact is just too sad for words.
When all is said and done, they only ended up filming the first chapter of Vonnegut’s book, and they’ve left out huge chunks of story that might have made us understand and empathize with these twins. As it stands, Wilbur and Eliza are split up and fighting to reunite long before we have any reason to care about them.
But despite all that, I’m recommending this movie. Sure, it’s not the least bit funny, but it’s completely insane, and sometimes, that’s enough. I mean, where else can you see a tiny Pat Morita sitting in a rice bowl? Where else can you see a Gilligan’s Island vet playing the president? Where else could you see Jerry Lewis and Madeline Khan walking on stilts, wearing giant ears, or having Boris Karloff-as-Frankenstein’s Monster haircuts that slide back to reveal foreheads that throb and pulsate? If you’re the type who can appreciate a comedy that’s funny for all the wrong reasons, then this is one that’s definitely worth seeking out.