Movie Review: Three Identical Strangers (2018)
I had two main thoughts by the end: one deadly serious, one less so.
Here’s the deadly serious thought: Surely the filmmakers were wary their doc might be continuing the experiment. Surely they knew that by making a film about how these boys, now men, had been in essence turned into lab rats, and then finding new evidence about why this had happened, and showing it to them and filming their response in real time, surely they knew that this wasn’t far removed from what the scientists themselves had done. Here you go. Here’s what this one lab tech had to say about your adopted parents. How does that make you FEEL? The filmmakers must have had these conversations deep into the night, right? Conversations about the ethics of it all? Surely?
The other, less serious thought was this: If only the Eddie Murphy comedy “Trading Places” had existed in the late 1950s. This whole thing might never have happened.
Nature vs. nurture
Here’s the trailer.
Pretty amazing stuff. Twins separated at birth, then reunited. Wait, not twins: triplets. They found each other in New York in 1980, and they were all tall, good-looking and fun. They were Jewish but seemed Italian, and became minor celebrities. They went on Today and Phil Donahue. They had a cameo in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” smiling at Madonna in the early morning light.
What’s amazing, and not commented upon enough, is how much joy being reunited brings them. I think if I were in college and found a long-lost twin—someone who looked, talked and thought like me—I’d throw up. I wouldn’t want to hang with them. I certainly wouldn’t want to dress like them. I’d see it as an affront to my individuality. At least I suspect I would. But maybe this is because I don’t have a long-lost twin. I was alone in the uterus, they weren’t. And maybe this accounts for their special joy. It’s an ur-reunification. They feel it in their bones.
Or maybe they’re just joyful people.
Are they interesting people? That’s an issue a third of the way through. In the ’80s, they hang with each other, go to clubs, drink, etc. Do they have jobs? We don’t know. All we’re told is that after years of partying they open a restaurant, Triplets, in the Soho district. I expected disaster but it does well. First year, they clear a million. They each get married; they start families.
Then David breaks away.
Do we get the why of that? Or just the consequences? It happens suddenly, doesn’t it, and then we’re into Eddy’s fall. But we expected that one. We hear and see David and Bobby, today, in their 50s, talking directly to the camera, and we’re painfully aware there’s no Eddy. So that hangs over our viewing: What happened to Eddy?
Apparently he had trouble with David leaving; he had trouble with the group splitting up. He was most likely manic-depressive—outgoing, loving, beloved—and then the opposite of that. During one of his opposites, in 1995, he took his own life.
Did this wreck the relationship between Bobby and David, or was that already wrecked? When we see them today, greeting each other on camera, it feels awkward, like they haven’t seen each other in a while. They were the extremes, classwise. Part of the experiment involved placing the boys in different economic strata: upper class (David), middle (Eddy), working (Bobby). Bobby’s dad was the most gregarious, Eddy’s the biggest disciplinarian, David’s (a doctor) the most absent.
The experiment, started by renowned psychologist Peter Neubauer—who fled the Nazis and should’ve known better than to experiment with people, with children—was apparently the old nature vs. nurture argument. What’s bred into us? What do we learn? Much of the early media surrounding the boys focused on their superficial similarities. They all wrestled, smoked the same cigs, dressed similarly even before they did it on purpose. Over and over again. The boys, back then, played this up. The doc does, too.
The differences turned out to be a matter of life and death. All suffered depression but it was Eddy who took his own life. Why?
The doc places the blame on Eddy’s martinet father, now in his 90s. He’s a talking head early in the doc so there’s a dramatic “butler did it” quality to the accusation. So it was him all along! But this turnabout made me uneasy. We’re blaming an old man for the death of his son based on ... dime-store psychology? A desperation to show nurture matters? I’m not sure. It feels facile.
“Three Identical Strangers” is still worth seeing. It’s an amazing, crazy, awful story. I just hope British documentarian Tim Wardle wanted me to feel uneasy afterwards. I hope his ethics discussions went deep into the night.