The comedy of the cute, likably flawed-but-menschy family man has gotten a good going-over since the ’80s, when Michael Keaton could bumble his way to enlightened parenting in 1983’s Mr. Mom. Now, a tough day in the trenches doesn’t cut it as an excuse for why Dad can’t cook breakfast: Everyone’s busy, everyone’s stressed, so quit bumbling and toast the Pop-Tarts, Pop. In the ’90s, we want our screen dads to be tough but tender, ambitious but supportive, gentle but firm, a floor wax and a dessert topping. And in ’90s-style movies from Sleepless in Seattle to Bye Bye Love, cute, likable family-man actors like Tom Hanks, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, and Paul Reiser have shown how tough but tender, etc., they could be. The only trouble is, rampant cuteness and likability often cancel out the hilarity inherent in the overscheduled hetero man.
In Multiplicity, Harold Ramis noodles with a new way to dramatize the comedy: by cloning. This is a natural creative development for the guy who mucked around with supernatural ids in Ghostbusters, and who made one shnook repeat the same day over and over until he got it right in Groundhog Day. In this iteration, Doug Kinney (Michael Keaton again, playing a character named for Ramis’ late writing buddy), a construction contractor in sunny L.A., can’t find enough hours in the day to do his job, nurture his kids, nuzzle his wife (Andie MacDowell), and knock golf balls around. So, through some throwaway hocus-pocus (Doug crosses paths with Harris Yulin as a geneticist who just so happens to specialize in ”magic”), he gets cloned. While the original Doug tees off, one ditto Doug is brought in to work hard (the caveman-hunter, with a tendency to be a babe hound), one for domestic support (the nurturer in touch with his feminine side, who, in this discordant cartoon translation, becomes downright effeminate), and one — a blurry copy of a copy — who’s an idiot child, not responsible for squat.
In this summer of lollapalooza visual effects, the small technical miracle of four Keatons interacting believably in the same scene is impressive. But aside from that, Multiplicity makes thin inspirational use — let alone comedic hay — of these four faces of ’90s Man. Keaton’s McDonald’s-arch eyebrows go up and down, ever thus; he’s a pleasant presence who, while no longer in Batman mode, nevertheless retains the faintest air of depression, or something, at the limitations of adulthood. (The idiot Doug is, I suspect, the actor’s happiest self.) MacDowell is a clone of her Groundhog Day/Four Weddings and a Funeral self, softly Southern yet chicly West Coast. Ramis’ talented, underused SCTV colleague Eugene Levy makes a brief, welcome appearance as a nuttily dim cement contractor, but he’s a zany interlude in an otherwise muted, unzany tale. Just because Dad doesn’t burn the toast anymore doesn’t mean cute, likably flawed ’90s Man needs to be handled with oven mitts. C+