A race of space aliens have offered Planet Earth a gift: twins who have the power of incredible intelligence, but when they were given birth to in China, they may have progressed their society far in advance of anything elsewhere in the world, but the aliens did not like the goals the Chinese had in utilising that intelligence. So they tried again, making Lutetia (Madeline Kahn), the wife of rich businessman Caleb Swain (Jerry Lewis), give birth to two very ugly and apparently mentally backward twins, a brother and sister. They were hidden away from anyone's gaze, so ashamed were their parents, so no one knew their true potential...
Kurt Vonnegut was undoubtedly one of the twentieth century's great writers, and one of the most accessible, which is why every so often someone thought it might be a good idea to bring his ideas to the cinema, whereupon anyone watching usually finds that perhaps he wasn't so easy to adapt as they anticipated. Slaughterhouse-Five is probably the most successful film version of his work, certainly the most widely known, but what of the hardly seen movie of Slapstick, Vonnegut's whimsical exploration of loneliness amid some strange flights of fancy?
What indeed, as the writer and director Steven Paul, then known for being one of the youngest in Hollywood, found himself floundering when he tried to recreate what was on the page and add in some elements that suggested he was a big fan of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, not something that would presumably have impressed the notoriously sci-fi shunning Vonnegut. So in this story, the twins are genuinely from another planet, and Paul apparently took the novel's dedication to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy to heart by having the action grind to a halt every so often for a stretch of physical humour.
There are even Laurel and Hardy impersonators onscreen, a nice touch in a film that otherwise eschews the subtle in favour of the broad, both in comedy and in sentimentality. Having Lewis on board might have raised hopes for the quality of the gags, but he was past his prime and not working from his own material anyway, and seems paradoxically ill-suited to this kind of clowning - he doesn't mine any laughter from it, at any rate. Which is a pity considering the cast also included such skilled performers as Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn, with her and Lewis playing the children as well as the parents, done up in grotesque makeup to accentuate their alien personalities.
The point is, if you're separated from someone you are particularly close to, then you feel as though you're missing part of yourself somehow, and this is taken to its logical conclusion (well, illogical conclusion actually) in the characters of the twins Wilbur and Eliza. Together, they are geniuses who could solve all the world's problems; this is set in the future so that the oil has run out and everything runs on chickenshit, for example, and the idea that there are those in society feeling alone and unloved can be remedied by the twins' new plans for humanity. But the world's problems are nothing as to this film's problems, with any sincere message marooned in an ocean of the downright weird, so if you know the book you can see by how far the film has missed its charm, and if you don't you'll be wondering what the hell is going on. And yes, cineastes, that is Samuel Fuller as Wilbur's Colonel. Music by Morton Stevens, including a horribly over-literal title song.