There have been better documentaries this year, but none of them are the roller-coaster ride that “Three Identical Strangers” turns out to be.
What begins as a giddy wave of New York disco era nostalgia, one of the delightful “feel good” stories of the day, roils into darkness, a tale so wild it seems borrowed from “The Boys from Brazil.”
In the first act, we’re riveted by old fashioned, kitchen-table or bar stool storytelling. Seasoned 50somethings, talking to the camera, relate their well-worn version of how they met.
“So I was 19, right? First day of college…”
That would be Sullivan County Community College, New York. That’s where these two burly young fellows, Eddy Galland and David Shafran, find themselves confused for somebody else.
“I’m meeting ALL these people who keep sayin’ I’m YOU.”
It’s “Were you adopted? “Yeah.” “Born July 12, 1961?” “Yeah.” “Long Island Jewish Hospital?” “Yeah!”
They meet and it’s love at first sight, that long-lost-sibling love that, in the case of identical twins, pegs the narcissism meter. And they and their families barely have time to register this shock when their tale reaches the local newspapers.
That’s where David Kellman’s friends and family see them. It’s the smiles, the hair and especially the big “baseball mitt” hands that tip everybody off.
“I’m looking at TWO of me. I think I may be the THIRD!”
Phone calls, and next thing you know, the two new siblings/best friends are racing down Long Island in the middle of the night, “So we get there…we get out of the car…”
“His eyes are my eyes, and my eyes are HIS eyes,” they marvel. A relative remembers that joyous meetup as “They needed no introductions…They were were like three puppies wrestling on the floor” in an instant.
They smiled the same, smoked the same cigarettes, has the same favorite color. It was uncanny.
“Three Identical Strangers” gallops through the media circus that then surrounded the trio — “The Today Show,” “Donahue,” a cameo in Madonna’s break-out movie, “Desperately Seeking Susan,” tabloid coverage of their Studio 54 club hopping exploits.
They move in together and the city can’t seem to get enough of them, but Eddy was struck with foreboding. “I don’t know if this’ll turn out to be great, or terrible.” He had a hunch.
Because after they married, after they opened a restaurant/pub together, future Pulitzer Prize winning New Yorker journalist Lawrence Wright (“The Looming Tower,” “Going Clear”) was poking around, looking at siblings separated at birth, and stumbled into a vast, covered-up behavioral study.
Jewish twins and the triplets all over greater New York, born in a Jewish hospital, adopted out by a prestigious New York Jewish adoption agency to families of differing socio-economic and temperamental circumstances, all presided over by a Jewish-Austrian Freudian (who fled the Holocaust) needing human guinea pigs in his search for settling the “nature vs. nurture” debate for once and all, or discovering the power of positive parenting…something.
You don’t have to hear Dr. Peter Neubauer’s Austrian-accented obfuscations over the phone, or a Swiss-accented assistant prevaricating, “I was peripheral” to this work to have diabolical Josef Mengele/Nazi concentration camp “experiment” chills. As did the triplets.
And when their outraged families seek legal recourse, Jewish law firms back away from them and the whole thing feels like an-Anti-Semite’s darkest fantasy about a clannish, insular community keeping its dirty secrets.
If British director Tim Wardle wants to move on from documentaries, the way “Strangers” is shot, edited and paced suggests any big screen thriller project would be well served by putting him behind the camera. In a movie that’s a combination of one or two people in on camera interviews, archival footage and shadowy recreations, Wardle lets extreme close-ups raise suspense and pop songs of the era, over home movies and TV appearances, to generate nostalgia and pathos.
Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” could bring you to tears.
I found the “feel good” opening to the film kind of “meh” and too much “a New York story” to do much for me. Hyped into a “phenomenon,” cute for a news cycle or two.
But as the mystery deepens, scientific curiosity takes over and provoked in me, as it could with you, ethical debates about what could be some of the most fascinating data about the “biology is destiny” theory of human development.
Will any of us, even the triplets (who got access to some of it) ever see it?
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some mature thematic material
Cast: Eddy Galland, Robert Shafran, David Kellman
Credits:Directed by Tim Wardle. A Neon/CNN Films release.
Running time: 1:36