David Kellman, Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland

Now showing in several theaters around the city, the documentary Three Identical Strangers is a  fascinating account of male triplets given up for adoption at birth who remain unaware of each other’s’ existence until the brothers stumble upon each other nearly twenty years later.  What begins as a feel-good-human-interest story turns into a mystery, then a tragedy, and ultimately an outrage.

When a teenager enrolls at an upstate New York community college in 1980, and is repeatedly and erroneously greeted as a former student, an amusing case of mistaken identity appears to be blooming. When a third identical sibling surfaces, the boys’ story explodes into a national phenomenon. People love these kinds of fairy tales and are eager to goose the narrative a bit to up the “Holy cow!” factor.  Even in the beginning, when the resemblance is the most striking, one of the boys is just a bit less “identical” than his brothers.

Constant references by Phil Donahue, Jane Pauley, Tom Brokaw, Time, People, the New York Times and even Good Housekeeping to the fact they all smoke Marlboros become increasingly stilted and contrived. Ditto for assertions that they all “like the same kind of women, cars and music.” All three are 18-year-old boys from New York City. That they have corresponding interests isn’t particularly shocking.

The mythmaking gets truly absurd when their dancing at a bar mitzvah gets national coverage as proof of their indistinguishable natures. Anyone who’s been to a blue collar wedding in the last forty years knows it takes about two minutes to teach 50 people the same line dance.

I’m not being cynical. I get the temptation to give a shiny, feel-good narrative a few extra coats of lacquer. But wouldn’t it have been interesting at the time, and just as charming, to have asked the boys to recall the moment each one realized the potential for money, ongoing fame, and sex that their new-found celebrity offered? And what did the siblings think about so many notable broadcast journalists asking the same safe questions over and over, never forgetting to re-stage that adorable and increasingly annoying dance bit?  Again, no shots at the boys or their story—which begins to take on one bizarre turn after another—is intended.

I considered when to stop addressing the movie’s key events for fear of upsetting the spoilerphobes and decided: fuck restraint. Let’s forge ahead.

There’s so much going on in this—too creepy not to be true—story that detailed observations still leave a great deal unrevealed. But keep in mind you’re not reading a typical “movie review” because this isn’t a “typical movie.” That is to say, this is a documentary.  We’re not critiquing cinematography or debating how the score sets a mood. I’m not really interested in the editing or performances. There are facts in this film I think you need to know, so I’m telling you. Decide for yourself whether to set this essay aside or not. You’re the lobster. I’m just stirring the pot.

And that pot’s about to start boiling. The boys milk their fame: visiting Studio 54 decked out in matching early ‘80s holy shit disco outfits, appearing in the Madonna vehicle Desperately Seeking Susan, and opening Triplets, a Romanian restaurant, in SoHo that earned good reviews from critics and an endless stream of celebrities and wannabes alike.

With a story this big and beloved, reporters started looking for angles.  What about the birth mother? Where had the boys been born and who were they originally left with? Who made the decision to separate the brothers and adopt them out individually? Birth records are checked, and a few facts are uncovered. Mom is a sad story, but no bombshell revelations here. The powerfully connected Jewish adoption agency in Manhattan where the babies were originally left lamely offers that placing multiple siblings with the same family is just too difficult. This is where the story goes from Feel Good Land to The Twilight Zone.

Even though many employees of the adoption agency were survivors of the Holocaust, they agreed to cooperate in a decades-long study of twins separated at birth. To keep their findings “clean” researchers never told the adoptive families other siblings existed.  The children were never informed they were twins, or in this case triplets. Genetic abnormalities and possible psychiatric issues were kept secret by the scientists. This deception may well have contributed to the tragedy that plays out in the final act of this story to date.

There’s a lot of family dynamics heavy-lifting in this movie. How do people become the parents, children and siblings they become?  Are we who we are born to be, or do we control our destinies? The fact that there’s no tidy ending to this film may be its most satisfying feature.  

As great a movie as Trading Places is, don’t let that fable affect your understanding of nature vs. nurture.  Go see Three Identical Strangers. Talk it over with your dad, a brother or your daughter, if you’re not chicken-shit.  If the conversation doesn’t destroy your family, you just might be the better for it. 

 

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Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.