Movies

Five Great Performances By Actors Playing Siblings

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Adam Sandler in Jack and Jill is not among them.

The trailer for the new Adam Sandler movie Jack and Jill represents one of those rare unifying moments in pop culture. You could be the hillbilly leader of a one-person cult nestled in a heavily-fortified compound deep in desolate Texas, or a vegan metrosexual in downtown Manhattan who's stressing out how to schedule thrice-daily yoga sessions — you know this is movie's going to be a shitshow.

What makes this mess different from past Sandler fare is that he's taking on the hacky gimmick of one actor playing twins. But while most films in the one-actor-two-twins ultra-niche are terrible — Jean Claude Van Damme's Double Impact for example, despite the fact that my ten-year-old self was really excited about the boobs in that movie — there are actually a handful of cases where a lone actor delivers two great performances. These are those times.

5. Armie Hammer in The Social Network

The Brothers Winklevoss aren't written as two disparate personalities with their own unique quirks, as much as two sides of a two-headed trick coin. But that's what makes Hammer's performance so great. When you meet twins in real life who are past the point of trying to highlight their differences — usually via in-your-face tattoos, dyed hair, or being an asshole — this is how it is; it takes awhile to feel really confident you know which is which. Throughout most of The Social Network, you're not entirely sure which is Cameron and which is Tyler, and mostly it doesn't matter. But every now and then a subtle difference between the two slips through, which allows you to see just what Hammer is accomplishing here.

4. Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger

This, on the other hand, isn't subtle. Hollywood actor Kit Ramsey is a pompous, white-devil-hating, lots-of-cash-and-even-more- flash bonafide blockbuster action-movie star. His brother Jiff is a warm, emotionally-stunted doofus, braces and all, who giggles when boobies are in his face. So to say that Murphy flexes his acting chops in this by keeping it level-headed isn't right. He goes over-the-top in both cases, in both directions. But the results are hilarious, which you can't say about too many Eddie Murphy performances in the past couple of decades.

3. Nicolas Cage in Adaptation

The hardest part of twin films is making conversations between the two believable. Perfectly paced-out editing helps, but audiences still have to overcome the inherent knowledge that it's impossible for these two people to be speaking to one another. When it works, it's because of performances like Nicolas Cage's in Adaptation. It helps that Cage's two characters are written as two sides of the "artistic integrity versus commercial appeal" argument that writer Charlie Kaufman is making in the movie, giving Cage a chance to latch onto a certain verbal rhythm and aesthetic while portraying each brother. But for an actor who normally specializes in losing his shit, this shows what can happen when someone reins him in.

2. Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers

You could cut together an entire acting reel from Jeremy Irons' performance as twin gynecologists in this piece of late-'80s weirdness from David Cronenberg. Elliot Mantle is the self-assured and forceful one, while brother Beverly is hesitant and bashful. But as played by Irons, neither brother is overtly so — these aren't caricatures. The emotions on display — apart from a sequence or two where Cronenberg lets Irons go hog wild — are muted and restrained. If we're to believe that the brothers are essentially two parts of one whole (the movie's tagline is "Two minds. Two bodies. One soul."), Irons plays it less schizophrenic and more like someone having the various delicate mood shifts that occur throughout any normal day.

1. Christian Bale in The Prestige [spoiler alert!]

The only problem with Bale's performance — and, sorry folks, even the fact that he's on this list is kind of a spoiler — is that you can't really appreciate it until you see the movie a second time. Like pretty much all of Christopher Nolan's films, The Prestige is a grower; you can't appreciate the masterful strokes Nolan pulls off until you've already mastered the plot details. But more than the intricacies of just which magician is pulling off what trick, it's Bale's performance(s) as Alfred Borden (more specifically, the two brothers that both play the role of "Alfred" at different times) that stands out the second time through. As this re-cut shows, the puzzling shifts in tone are easy to unlock once you have the key: one brother loves wife Sarah, one doesn't. So even though the movie's other characters get turned around as to which twin is which, you never will, if you follow the advice of the film's opening lines and watch closely.