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The Boston Phoenix Twin Bill

Resetting 'The Parent Trap'

By Alicia Potter

AUGUST 3, 1998:  The Parent Trap, that 1961 taffy pull starring Hayley Mills, subversively appeals to our desire for self-reflexive love. Really. The film sprinkles Disney magic on the fantasy that, somewhere, each of us has a perfect match, a spiritual doppelgänger who'll finish our sentences and understand us completely. Of course, this notion isn't just tucked into the film's grown-up romance; it's precociously packaged as Sharon and Susan, those hopelessly pop-eyed identical twins.

The power of two is indeed the resounding theme of this classic lark, and in filming the 1998 version, first-time director Nancy Meyers could have easily gone the Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen route. Instead, she preserves the whimsical split-screen hokum of writer/director David Swift's original. From there, this remake follows the lead of 1996's The Nutty Professor: it brings a glossy, modern edge to dated Disney fluff.

Like Mills before her, 11-year-old Lindsay Lohan plays the roles of both twins -- here hiply renamed Annie and Hallie -- who don't meet until their divorced parents send them to summer camp. After an initial rivalry involving tiresome pranks and much denial (a ludicrous number of minutes pass before the pair finally figure out -- duh! -- they're sisters), the girls switch places in an attempt to reunite their British dress-designer mother (Natasha Richardson) and Californian vintner father (Dennis Quaid).

It's a plot that demands a lot in the suspended-belief department. What cruel parents would deny their children contact, especially twins? Why don't the camp counselors question the relationship of these mirror images? Meanwhile, the twins' parents are "hazy" as to why they split to his-and-her continents, never to speak again. (The original's source of marital strife is patent: mom Maureen O'Hara has a habit of slugging dad Brian Keith, clearly a '90s no-no.)

But the story's implausibilities fade in the face of the twins' plucky high jinks. Of course, Lohan has some big sneakers to fill -- Disney darling Mills carried the original with aplomb. Yet this newcomer, a freckle-faced redhead, is a spunky discovery; she nails a crisp British accent for proper Annie, then shifts into American slang for tomboy Hallie. And when she's asked to chirp some humdinger dialogue ("A dad is an irreplaceable person in a girl's life"), she carries it off with a modicum of treacle.

Unlike the original, in which Mills was the movie, the new Parent Trap gathers a facile supporting cast to flesh out the film. Natasha Richardson as mom Elizabeth James is sophisticated yet softly maternal; Dennis Quaid as dad Nick Parker is sexy in a crinkle-eyed kind of way. Elaine Hendrix injects humorous, eyebrow-arching witchiness as Meredith, Nick's gold-digging fiancée and the twins' nemesis. Similarly, the addition of Lisa Ann Walter as Hallie's nanny and Simon Kunz as Annie's butler deepen the comedic pool.

For the most part, though, director Meyers sticks close to the original's script and camera angles. The co-writer of Private Benjamin, Baby Boom, and the remake of Father of the Bride with husband Charles Shyer (co-writer here), she even sneaks in several sly homages. Joanna Barnes, who played the Aqua-Netted fiancée in the 1961 version, camps it up in a cameo as Meredith's mother. As for the fate of that gaggingly sunny ditty "Let's Get Together" from the original soundtrack, at one point Lohan mumbles the song as she waits for an elevator.

Still, at an overlong 128 minutes, the film candies plenty of sticky sentimentality. During her early scenes, Lohan caroms toward overbearing cutesiness; likewise, the comedy's slo-mo hugs and video-style montages -- one of which features supermodel Vendela -- are immediately cloying. There's even something a little unsettling amid the froth. With its depiction of children controlling the grown-up world, the story carries a hopeful but delusional message: kids can rekindle the romance of divorced parents. Separated moms and dads with no intention of trying again had best warn their young ones that, sadly, what works in the movies doesn't always work in real life.

What does work here is the wonder of two soulmates colliding for the first time. In the initial scene where Lohan appears as both Hallie and Annie, the buzz-cut tyke sitting in front of me experienced a moment of popcorn-spilling disbelief. "What?!" he exclaimed. Clearly, this new Parent Trap has earned its own double takes.

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