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A review of "Twister" (1989)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews:

The best way I can describe Twister is "a prototype for Wes Anderson movies, but without all the symmetry."  It's a quirky dramedy about an oddball family of shiftless losers with money and is frequently laugh-on-the-inside funny even though it doesn't have too many belly laughs.  (Although the line about "eating the inside of a clock and dying" got me.)  Its formula has been told to perfection in later films, but that doesn't mean this one isn't worth seeking out.

My Rating: 4 / 5

The Plot Summary

Twister is an ensemble movie about the Clevelands, a wealthy family that lives in rural Kansas.  Since it's an ensemble film, it doesn't really have a true "main" plot.  If there is anybody who can be considered the central character, it would probably be Chris, an outsider to their clan.  But otherwise, the best way to describe the plot is just to sum up the characters:

Chris (Dylan McDermott before he developed his "psychopath / creep" chops) is the ex-boyfriend of Mo Cleveland, with whom he had a daughter, Violet, maybe nine years ago or so.  Chris then went off on an extended trip to Canada to find himself, and now that he's back in the US, he wants to get involved in his daughter's life and be a proper father.  At first he thinks this means getting her away from the Cleveland house, since the family is nuts and a terrible influence.  But then he goes back and forth on whether or not he wants to get back together with Mo.

Eugene Cleveland (Harry Dean Stanton) is the Cleveland family patriarch.  He's a successful soda and mini-golf tycoon whose wealth has allowed his kids to stay in a suspended state of adolescence, which is why they still live at home in his mansion in the country.  He's a single father and doesn't talk much about his wife, but the general understanding is that she left him and the kids long ago when she decided she couldn't handle motherhood.  Presently Eugene is dating Virginia, a super-religious woman who hosts a children's TV show called "Wonderbox."

Mo Cleveland is Eugene's twentysomething daughter.  Mo is a hyper-emotional drunk and possibly also manic depressive.  Ever since she and Chris had Violet, she's been on a roller coaster of fury and despair with the occasional streak of motherly love.  Mo frequently obsesses about the meaning of life and often wonders whether or not she has cursed Violet by giving birth to her in the first place.  Her primary conflict is whether or not she will allow Chris to re-enter Violet's life, but later she becomes embroiled in her brother's quest to find their mom.

Howdy Cleveland (Crispin Glover) is Eugene's twentysomething son.  Howdy is emotional, brooding, and artistic - the cliche of every art school student and troubled musician you can imagine, but with less drugs and no sex appeal.  He's vain, naive, and effete.  Lately he's been dating a girl named Stephanie whom he says he will marry, and he spends most of the movie planning their honeymoon.  Howdy is also obsessed with figuring out where his and Mo's mother went after abandoning them, so he spends a good chunk of the movie doing detective work to find her.

Violet Cleveland is Eugene's granddaughter.  She seems like a pretty normal kid despite being subjected to Mo's constant drinking and Howdy's weirdness.

Lola is Eugene's maid and housekeeper.  She's kind of a plot device more than she is a character, to be honest; mostly she stays in the background and does her job while pretending that the Clevelands aren't a bunch of egocentric assholes.

And that's pretty much it.  These characters constantly fight with each other while living idle lives in their mansion.

There's a lot of incident until about twenty minutes before the end when some of the subplots start to get wrapped up.  Both Eugene's and Howdy's romances fizzle out for various unrelated reasons, and then Violet gets stung by some wasps and has an allergic breakout.  Chris, in a moment of misguided fatherly vengeance, seeks out the source of the wasps and finds their nest in a shed on the Cleveland property.  Through mishap and clumsiness, he accidentally sets the shed and himself on fire before the family comes to put him out.

Later there is a confrontation at dinner where Eugene reveals that Mo and Howdy's mom didn't leave them at all - she actually developed a severe psychosis and was unable to function in the real world.  She died while in care at an institution, and he assumed his kids understood that.

Shortly afterward, Eugene has a frank conversation with Chris.  It's not directly stated, but the implication is that Eugene, though Chris's incident with the wasps / fire, recognizes that Chris has direction in life and is the only good influence on his family, despite his bumbling ways.  He essentially "appoints" Chris as the new patriarch.  Then Eugene and Lola skip town for an extended business trip abroad.

The film ends with Chris joining his new family on the couch as they watch TV.

The Part Where I Praise the Movie

It's kinda funny.  Because Twister is such a well-made movie, I'm having a hard time finding clever little sub-sections for things to talk about.  It's not that I can only find things to talk about with bad movies, but it's just so much easier to point out a movie's flaws.  So let's not make any bones about it and try to be witty - this is simply a good movie.

The acting is solid, the writing is tight, the pacing is excellent.  It's only a 90 minute movie, but it explores enough content and has enough depth of character that it could easily have gone on for another half hour.  It's one of those delightful movies that speeds by so quickly you're amazed when it's already over.

It's my favorite kind of under-seen movie to watch - one of those movies that's genuinely pleasant and doesn't feel like a chore.  When I find something like Twister, I want to start campaigning for people to see it and I can't wait to recommend it.

That said, I don't want to oversell it.  There are moments that are a little bit rough and some characters are totally underdeveloped.  But if you're at all a fan of movies that make fun of idle rich people, this is a must.  Ignore the bizarrely low IMDb rating and seek this one out.

The Part About Class and Wes Anderson

I mentioned at the top that it's a lot like a Wes Anderson movie, and I think that's probably the best way to start.  He's a good metric to predict whether or not you'll dig Twister.

I feel like Anderson gets shat on a lot by the Internet not necessarily because all of his movies are of a singular tone (which they are, but that's not a good reason to hate a guy), but rather because his movies deal with class in such a dismissive and blase way.  His films almost always deal with upper class layabouts whose lack of direction has led them to disappointing and joyless lives, but he rarely uses his films as a direct commentary about money.  Instead he'll just drop those socialites right out in front of you and smile, as if he's nudging you and going, "They're funny, right?"

I think a lot of Americans don't like that.  It's too scary to be reminded that achieving things like money and status doesn't really change whether or not you are going to be happy with your life, so there's a tendency for his films to get this weird, misguided backlash.  I can't say that everyone who says they hate Wes Anderson is of this mindset, but my guess is that a large subset is.

The reason I bring all this up is because I'd love to see those same people's reaction to Twister and test out my hypothesis.  It's not a Wes Anderson movie - it's written and directed by Michael Almereyda, the director of The Eternal.  (The dry wit and undercurrent of sarcasm that I loved in The Eternal is still strong in Twister, by the way - and since Twister is actually meant as a comedy, it works much better.)

Almereyda doesn't have the same visual style and quirky love of color or detail the way Anderson does, but in terms of tone and subject matter, Twister is a sibling of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited.  I often see people ragging on Anderson's movies for "looking the same," but you can't use that complaint for Twister.

So what will they say to this?  Do they still hate it because it's about rich people whose money didn't satisfy their quest for fulfillment?  Or will they do a 180 and decide they like it all of a sudden simply because it has a different aesthetic?

Anybody who hates Wes Anderson movies reading this?  Go watch Twister and let me know if you liked it.  I'm really curious about this.

The Part About Vanity

Ostensibly, the title is a play on the fact that the mansion is besieged by tornadoes while the characters are arguing with each other.  (I'm sure there's at least one poster that says something like, "You think the storm outside is bad?  Wait until you see what's going on inside!")

You could be forgiven for thinking the tornadoes were an afterthought, to be honest.  There's only a handful of scenes where you actually see any damage caused by the weather or where you see the outside world at all.  The effect is fantastic - it's a subtle reminder that the Clevelands are so deeply fixated on their own petty lives that they can't be bothered to care about the rest of the world.

There's one really terrific shot, in fact, where you see a massive pile of debris and devastation in the foreground while Howdy and Mo are driving in the background, chasing a lead on where their mother went.  It's brief, but it's a great moment.  It actually makes me kind of upset that they called the movie "Twister."  It calls attention to something that was otherwise a really nice little background detail.

The film is a wonderful depiction of vanity.  It's a fantastic exploration of the narcissistic mindset that people love to pin on my generation.  Just a reminder: Twister was made in 1989.  Don't saddle the millennials with the burden of smug American arrogance.  It's always been there, you guys did it first, the fire's been burning since the world's been turning, et cetera.

What's really great about it is that the Clevelands are vain in the way that real people are vain, not the way that cartoon characters on TV are.  (I'm thinking specifically about something like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which is an hilarious show, but which has people that you would rarely meet in real life.)  The Clevelands aren't necessarily checking themselves out in the mirror, but they've got a completely unearned sense of importance and talent.

Probably the funniest moment in the movie is when Howdy is talking to his father about financing a trip to Europe, and his dad says that it will be too expensive.  So Howdy says something to the effect of, "Oh, well, I could get a job.  I've heard of them before."  He then goes on a completely earnest tangent about all the places that would be lucky to have him as an employee and all the nonsensical things he thinks he can get paid to do.

This is what true vanity looks like.  It doesn't make you act like an asshole - it makes you act like an idiot.

It's so well done that I'll go so far as to say that Twister is a timeless movie.  There are moments where you get a snippet or two of pop culture or technology at the time - for example, you see an enormous boxy CRT television that's supposed to be the pinnacle of home entertainment, but which would look ridiculous in anybody's house nowadays.  But because the movie is so claustrophobically confined to the exploits of this family of assholes, and because their vanity is so well realized, it never feels dated.  The Clevelands aren't a product of the Reagan years or a parody of their era - they're just the hapless morons that we're always going to have to deal with.

Where You Can Watch

I found Twister on Youtube, so if you go now, you can watch it there for free.  But it looks like it's also on Hulu if you don't mind commercials and/or want higher video quality.

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