Three Identical StrangersReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/06/18 08:37:40
“Three Identical Strangers” is an alternately fascinating and frustrating documentary that takes an absolutely compelling story, lays it out in a straightforward and concise matter and. . . well, that is pretty much all it does. The end result is a work that is compelling enough to watch the first time around based solely on the need to see how the bizarre twists and turns of the narrative play out. (This is one of those films that is best experienced knowing as little about it as possible.) However, once everything has been revealed and the film is over, there isn’t really much to talk about other than the points of the story and there is certainly nothing about it from a stylistic standpoint that might inspire someone to ever watch it a second time. Sure, I was entertained and reasonably captivated while watching it but even then, I found myself wishing that it could have been put forth in a more dynamic and introspective manner than the too slick and too glib presentation that it has received.The story begins in 1980 as 19-year-old Bobby Shafran goes off to his first day at a small New York community college and inexplicably finds himself being greeted by many of the students as if they already know him. It turns out that they are mistaking him for another student, Eddy Galland, who attended the same school a little earlier. It turned out that the two were actually twin brothers who had been put up for adoption as infants and knew nothing about each other’s existence. As unlikely as that story may sound, it would get even crazier when the media got a hold of it and another 19-year-old, David Kellman saw the story in the paper and realized that he was a dead ringer for the two brothers. Yes, they were actually triplets who ended up being raised by three very different families within a 100-mile radius of each other. Making up for lost time, the three quickly bonded, moved into an apartment together and began tasting the fruits of their fame/notoriety—late nights at the hottest clubs, opening a restaurant named, inevitably, Triplets, a cameo appearance ogling Madonna as she walks down the sidewalk in “Desperately Seeking Susan.” However, they are still puzzled by the circumstances that led to their separation and when they and their families begin to investigate what happened, they stumble upon a shocking secret that sends their lives into upheaval and threatens to destroy the newly reformed brotherly bonds.
This is undeniably fascinating stuff but director Tim Wardle seems at times to be going out of his way to render it inert through his recounting. From a cinematic standpoint, the combination of talking head interviews, archival footage and brief dramatic recreations suggests a profile on a television news magazine show (CNN, perhaps not surprisingly, serves as one of the producers) and while that may be fine for free in the comfort of one’s own home, the drab visual style inevitably drags things down a bit. (It also winds up inadvertently tipping the fate of one of the characters much earlier than presumably intended.) More troubling is the way that Wardle comes across potentially interesting aspects to the story and then elects to shy away from them. We never get a true sense of what it must have been like for the three brothers to going from not knowing that the others existed to moving in together nor is much time spent of examining how things soured for them regarding the ultimately failed business venture with the restaurant. Even when the big reveal regarding what actually happened to them, it will no doubt chill and outrage anyone watching but once that initial reaction fades away, you get the sense that Wardle doesn’t want to dig too deep into what happened and its ramifications beyond the immediate surface ones.Because it tells such a curious story, one that not even the most incompetent handling can fully harm, “Three Identical Strangers” is still a reasonably interesting watch from a strictly narrative perspective. However, while watching it, I couldn’t help but find myself thinking of the classic films of documentarian Errol Morris, especially the landmark titles “Gates of Heaven” and “The Thin Blue Line.” These were films that told wildly unexpected stories—the latter even helped spring the Death Row prisoner from jail by essentially proving his innocence of the murder for which he was convicted—and when I watched them for the first time, I was absolutely spellbound by them. However, unlike “Three Identical Strangers,” I found myself coming back to those films even after I was familiar with their revelations because they were made with such style and because Morris helped us to really get to know and understand the people up their on the screen. With the richness of character and style on display throughout, those films were practically novelistic in nature and stuck with you long after watching them as a result. “Three Identical Stangers,” on the other hand, is more like a magazine article—it tells a good story and keeps you interested towards then end but there is nothing about that would inspire you to take another look at it at some point down the line.
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