multiMichael Keaton has always been a crowded house of an actor: pacing, restless, his mind perpetually elsewhere. Think of his idea guy in Night Shift, or, more recently, his distracted metro editor in The Paper. Even as Batman, he suggested two personalities at war with each other. So Keaton’s clone comedy, Multiplicity, makes perfect sense. And it’s a measure of his great talent that four of him isn’t too much.

Keaton is Doug Kinney, a construction manager caught in the classic late-20th-century American dilemma: He can’t balance his demanding job and his equally demanding family life. The phrase “There aren’t enough hours in the day” was patented by people like Doug. So was its companion phrase, “I need another me.” Multiplicity is about what happens when Doug gets what he thinks he wants: more hours in the day and more Dougs.

A sympathetic geneticist (Scarface‘s Harris Yulin in a neat double cameo) sees Doug’s problem and offers to solve it. Before long, Doug meets Doug 2, who assumes work duties while Doug 1 takes over at home. Then Doug 1, exhausted by his kids and panicked by his wife’s (Andie MacDowell) urge to find her own job, creates Doug 3 to take over at home while Doug 1 goofs off. Meanwhile, Dougs 2 and 3 create their own clone — Doug 4, a bad copy whose philosophy is “I like pizza.”

Sound confusing? It might have been, if the versatile Keaton weren’t on board. Richard Edlund’s seamless cloning effects are amazing enough, but I still don’t quite know how Keaton manages to play off himself (and sometimes off three of himself) so deftly. And he makes each Doug instantly identifiable. Doug 2, whose life consists entirely of work, is a babes-and-brewskis guy. Doug 3 is a puppyish cross between Martha Stewart and the Anal-Retentive Chef. Doug 4 … well, he likes pizza. As for the original Doug, he becomes blurry and indistinct, which is the point: Doug is losing himself.

Multiplicity was directed by Harold Ramis, who has carved out a useful comedy niche: fantasies dealing with identity crises. (He had a hit in 1993 with Groundhog Day, which could have been called Perpetuity.) Ramis’ Animal House co-writer, Chris Miller, devised the story and worked on the script with Mary Hale, and then Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Night Shift). Unlike four Keatons, maybe four writers are too much. Certain intriguing ideas — such as a clone thinking that he’s the original — aren’t developed, and the ending is a bit too pat.

But those are nitpicks. Largely due to Keaton, the movie is consistently funny, and one sequence in a restaurant made me laugh myself into a mild headache. (Bring some aspirin.) And you really need to see it on the big screen. At times, Ramis fills the frame with all four Keatons, arguing and interacting. On video, in a mangled pan-and-scan version, at least one Keaton will be left out of your TV frame. The Keaton quartet is like a one-man Marx brothers. His virtuosity in Multiplicity deserves to be seen in its entirety.

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