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A Knowing Critic Scans Scene of Double Feature

June 19, 1988|SHEILA BENSON

Studios brood inordinately about the way critics see movies. Should they see comedies surrounded by jolly civilians who would laugh at "Howard the Duck?" Should dramas be screened with audiences who know enough not to laugh at the wrong moments? Should critics somehow be kept away from other critics, away from the possibly corrupting influence of a sarcastically raised eyebrow or a barely stifled groan?

I've always maintained that drama could look after itself and comedy was comedy, and you laughed at what made you laugh whether you were by yourself or in Radio City Music Hall with a recruited audience of guaranteed laughing fools.

I saw "Ishtar" with only four other people, and during the opening section--the back-and-forth between Beatty and Hoffman with their diabolically awful songs--made me laugh so uncontrollably I almost had to leave the room, and we hadn't even gotten to the buzzard yet. (I realize that citing "Ishtar" as one's high-water mark in humor is already asking for it, but it is my kind of humor and I am stuck with it.)

I saw "The Missionary," a neatly droll English comedy of character, quite alone in a screening room, without knowing whether I should be prepared for drama, comedy or moral uplift. What I did know was that the director, Richard Loncraine, had made an earlier movie, "The Haunting of Julia" that was very stylish--and very frightening. So, as "The Missionary" began, and Maggie Smith and Michael Palin began to work their magic, all I could think was that this had better be a comedy because if it was a drama it was in seriously funny trouble.

There was a Saturday morning screening of "Batteries Not Included" in the Valley, with what they call a "solicited" audience that a pair of movie-mad friends of mine went to. They said it bordered on the eerie because looking around the enormous house, they seemed to be by themselves. It was only when the movie began, and little laser squeaks and giggles began to come from the seats around them that they discovered a whole audience of "hand-holders" (the generic marketing name for the very, very young), only visible when their little Keds or patent-leather Mary Janes appeared on the back of the seats in front of them. As an audience for that movie, it was blissful.

If the end result is to be a review somewhere, critics are a little wary of a house that seems exquisitely calibrated to be "the target audience." The midnight screening of Stallone's "Cobra" was a case in point, one of the most colossal misjudgments in reviewing memory. What writers still up at that foolish hour had to run the gamut of fans there for a midnight-to-dawn "Cobrathon" and could hardly hear the movie as cries of "Yo!" rocketed around the Chinese Theater like echoes in a bat cave.

However, no screening experience prepared me for seeing "Big Business" at the Hollywood Pacific the other night, in a audience that included 77 sets of twins. It wasn't Disney's idea to funnel the press into this set-up. They'd had their proper "all-media" screening the night before at the Cinerama Dome, but I hadn't been able to make it. What was left was a KIIS-FM promotional screening, one of dozens of similar ones Disney was encouraging all over the country to get the national consciousness off Paul Hogan or Tom Hanks and onto Les Girls, Midler and Tomlin, where they felt it belonged.

Everywhere you looked you saw double. The eeriness of older twins, duplicated down to the last springy gray curl. Yuppie twins. A pair of natty women in round mohair hats, like chic Mohair pith helmets. Black twins. Giant twins, or as giant as a bulky 6-foot-6 appears, which in those surroundings looked pretty big. And nursery-school-age twins. There were the inspirational twins of the whole project--the real Rose and Sadie--the fraternal twin mother and aunt of co-screenwriter Marc Rubel. (It gets very incestuous, or at least familial, since the screenplay was written by man and woman first cousins.) Even the KIIS announcers were twins; two sets, no less, men and women.

There were actor twins and would-be actor twins; the last were a pair of young blond studlets in snakeskin cowboy boots and identically shredded jeans, who arrived in a white stretch limo. They stood on the curb afterward, seemingly torn between being unapproachable and wanting to be discovered. When that didn't happen, they piled sulkily into their hired car with their manager and disappeared.

And the crucial question: Did it play differently? Bet your button shoes it did. It was the audience of Disney's wildest dreams. You haven't lived until you've seen that double discovery sequence at the end of the film in the company of 154 people intimately connected with the mechanism of living with one's mirror image. It was pandemonium.

But did it affect the review?

Nah. I'm tough. I would have been convulsed if I'd been all by myself in a screening room. But I probably should mention that I've been around that twin block once or twice myself. My brothers are twins. Fraternal twins.

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