No. 30: Two of a Kind

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

We enter the top 30 on our list with a film that while succeeding in bringing in dollars in a variety of ways ended up perhaps spelling disaster for its two main stars. When John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John reunited to film Two of a Kind five years after co-starring in the mega-hit Grease, it must have seemed like a fool-proof plan. With Saturday Night Fever, Urban Cowboy and five years of Welcome Back, Kotter under his belt, Travolta’s star was never brighter and while Newton-John’s film career had yet to take off (Xanadu didn’t do the trick), she was still in the midst of a phenomenal pop recording career. In fact, the lead single from Two of a Kind‘s platinum-selling soundtrack, “Twist of Fate”, was a huge hit on the pop charts heading into the film’s December release.

Despite all those factors, the film was both a critical and financial flop. I’ve been unable to find any information about the film’s production budget but among its many problems, production quality is not one of them. It’s a great looking film with two big stars and a very large supporting cast (including a fun appearance by Ernie Hudson) plus a number of action set pieces and special effects shots that were at least on par with some of the things we see in Krull. All that adds up to either a very small profit margin or perhaps even a small loss with Two of a Kind‘s modest $23.6 million take at the box office.

So what, you may be asking, goes so horribly wrong with this film? The first person I would acquit of any charges is John Travolta. There’s a reason he was a big star in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He was an incredibly likable, energetic, charismatic on-screen presence and while his performance in Two of a Kind is built on weaker material than, say, his work in Saturday Night Fever, he’s still able to exude that youthful confidence that audiences loved so much about him back then.

Olivia Newton-John is a bit of a different story. She’s not a natural actress and while she’s certainly beautiful, she just doesn’t seem at ease on film.

And then there’s the accent. Maybe it’s an issue of personal preference but I think there are certain accents that Americans find charming, even sexy, and some they find a little off-putting and perhaps awkward. English accents have always gone over very well with American audiences (go ahead, make another Jane Austen movie, we’ll all see it) while Irish accents don’t seem to make Americans swoon in quite the same way. I’m of course speaking in general terms here, but I think the Australian accent is a little hit and miss for American audiences. It’s just hard to be charmed by a woman when you hear her excitedly telling her cat “cheeken lee-vas for-eeva!” (read it out loud).

Anyway, I may be stretching a bit with the Australian accent business but regardless, Newton-John comes off feeling a little less warm and charming than her male lead in the film but still manages to be watchable in part because of the obvious chemistry between the two stars. Their performances have that feel of two actors who are thrilled to be working together and there are a few moments of improvisation where the two seem to be having a blast and it’s hard not to enjoy it along with them.

So it’s not the acting and the production quality holding the film back. What about the screenplay? How about I describe it a little and let you decide:

A bunch of angels (including Scatman Crothers and Charles Durning) have apparently been left in charge of Heaven while God (voiced by Gene Hackman) has been away on vacation for a while. God comes back and isn’t happy at all with how mankind has turned out and decides he’s going to destroy them. The angels plead for one chance to show that a person can reform themselves and become a better person and God decides to give them a two weeks to prove it. Then the Almighty sneezes for some reason and one of the angels says “Bless Yourself!”. Brilliant.

The man upon whom humanity is depending is Travolta’s character, a wacky inventor with a home full of automated inventions that almost spookily foreshadows Doc Brown‘s house from the opening of Back to the Future. Long story short, in order to finance his inventions, Travolta finds himself in a position where he must rob a bank and the teller he chooses happens to be Olivia Newton-John. For some reason which is never explained (even she herself admits it doesn’t make any sense), Newton-John’s character decides to frame Travolta and steal the money herself.

All of that setup is, I suppose, meant to show us that they are wayward people in need of reforming. After Travolta tracks her down to try and get his money back, the two ultimately fall in love and that love leads to the two of them committing acts of sacrifice that ultimately prove that mankind is worth saving.

If it sounds like a simple, Capra-esque romantic comedy with a heavenly twist, I’m not describing it correctly. There are so many holes, so many unnecessary tangents and so many inexplicable actions and motivations in this story that by the end of the movie, it’s nearly impossible to remember how we got there.

Among the most perplexing of those innumerable supporting characters is a character referred to as Beasley (played by Oliver Reed) who is quite clearly meant to represent The Devil. While it’s clear he has an antagonistic relationship with the angels, he’s mostly just a slightly rascally mischief-maker rather than the embodiment of pure evil. In fact, as the film goes on Beasley becomes convinced that the destruction of humanity will mean fewer souls for him to tempt and torment and thus decides to help the angels, making him an endlessly more heroic figure in the film than God. Can’t imagine this movie will make the cut for many Church group movie nights.

That’s just one of many details of the plot that infuriated critics at the time (another that particularly drove Roger Ebert nuts was the spontaneous food fight that breaks out at a fancy restaurant) but even aside from the plot, the film’s screenplay is so flawed it’s nearly impossible to find a scene that feels particularly useful or relevant to the rest of the film. The dialogue is so uninspired and lacking in charm or finesse. At one point, Travolta is fixing a broken doorknob for Newton-John and drops this brilliant double-entendre:

“The key is you have to hold the nuts while you screw.”

That’s simultaneously unfunny, mechanically incorrect for a doorknob (because there aren’t any nuts involved) and, I’m pretty sure, anatomically incorrect for the dirty connotation. Triple fail.

In the end, what this film appears to have been was a movie that was conceived as a star vehicle before it was conceived as a story, always a recipe for failure. The soundtrack album (which I’ve learned from some of my older friends was indeed a very big deal in ’83) is the star of the show here but it’s definitely to the detriment of the film. The music is awkwardly shoe-horned into the film and rarely fits the action on screen.

What’s particularly off-putting is when one of the lead actors is also the person singing the song being played. We are looking at John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John staring into each other’s eyes without speaking but suddenly hear Newton-John’s voice singing a ballad. Is it her character’s inner monologue? Are we meant to ignore that it’s her and just take it as a typical romantic soundtrack moment? These are the issues that arise when you put your audience in that kind of position.

This may be the worst three-film stretch I’ve been through yet in this countdown, with two bad teen sex comedies (Class and My Tutor) leading me into a poorly conceived, poorly made commercial flop. I don’t like to head into a movie with a bias, but I’m guessing based on the title of my next film, this streak looks to continue for at least one more week.

Next Up: Yet another R-rated comedy, Spring Break.