Jordan Peele’s Us was one of the best films of 2019: the scale of its ambition dwarfed Get Out, Peele’s directorial debut, and it hits all its marks. It’s one of those horror films that I can imagine watching over and over, becoming richer without ever becoming less scary. The best comparison I can make is that it made me feel kind of like how The Shining makes me feel, and The Shining might be my favourite horror film ever, so.
Us is incredibly dense with allusion and multiplicity of meaning. Even something as simple as its title can be read two ways: us and US. Much has been said about its many references to other films, from Jaws to The Goonies to CHUD. But no-one has said anything about how it’s basically a horror version of the 1988 Bette Midler/Lily Tomlin farce Big Business, which it totally is. This is not least because no-one remembers the 1988 Bette Midler/Lily Tomlin farce Big Business – except for maybe Jordan Peele – but they should, because Big Business is great: a tightly constructed, very funny comedy of errors about class and corporate America.
The premise of Big Business sounds like it would be impossible to pull off in a way that would hold together under the strain of thinking about it for ten seconds. Two pairs of identical twins were born in the same rural hospital in West Virginia at the same time, one set to a rich New York couple and the other two a poor West Virginian couple. Two of the babies were swapped at birth due to a mix-up at the hospital, meaning that grown-up Sadie (Bette Midler) and Rose (Lily Tomlin) live in New York, running Moramax, the megacorporation they inherited from their father, while unbeknownst to them, their identical twins Sadie (Midler) and Rose (Tomlin) live in the town they were born, Jupiter Hollow, which is about to be sold off and strip-mined.
The film’s opening section sets up every part of this premise like clockwork: the wealthy New York Sheltons are lost in rural West Virginia when Mrs. Shelton goes into labour. There’s only one hospital nearby – in the little town of Jupiter Hollow – but they are turned away because it is only for employees of Hollowmade, the local factory. So Mr. Shelton buys the factory on the spot. Meanwhile, the Ratliffs show up ready to have their baby, too. A brief gag about the nurse mixing up a urine sample and a glass of whiskey sets up the key moment, when she gets the twins mixed up. The rich family name their babies Sadie and Rose, and overhearing them and thinking those names sound nice, Mr. Ratliff suggests the same names to his wife. I love this opening because every question you’d have if you stumble in partway through while flicking through the TV stations – why do the twins have the same names? Why do the Sheltons own the town factory in Jupiter Hollow? – are addressed seamlessly, without ever attracting undue attention. It’s exposition, but it doesn’t feel like exposition; it feels like a good time at the movies.
From there, it’s a mixture of The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, The Prince and the Pauper, and The Comedy of Errors. The face of popular cinema has shifted so dramatically in recent years – into the narrower and narrower categories of superhero movies, tentpole action blockbuster sequels and reboots, and animated films for children – that extremely mainstream, populist cinema from the 1980s seems surprisingly fresh, full of weird notes and big ideas. That’s true of all the masterpieces that critics misunderstood or dismissed in their own time, largely due to superficial reasons like genre, from John Hughes’s teen movies to Dirty Dancing to dozens upon dozens of great horror films. But the weird thing is that it’s also true of the mediocre. Films from the 1970s have a shockingly high hit rate of being life-changing masterpieces, but films from the 1980s have a shockingly high hit rate of being a fun time.
The classic pro-Marvel argument is that they’re entertaining, and that’s enough. That’s not an argument that’s ever landed with me because those films (for the most part) feel bland and made-by-committee, a kind of pleasant dullness to sit through for three hours that runs right through you when you get out the door. But I know I’m not a snob inherently unsympathetic to that argument because I do feel that way about super-mainstream 1980s comedies. And I’m always so surprised by how different the landscape of popular cinema was then, by how different the rules seem to be. Some of the new rules are better – there’s a hell of a lot less blackface than there used to be – but there are interesting things lost, too. Weekend at Bernie’s is full of body horror. Mr. Mom is within an inch of its life of being a great film about the relationship between second-wave feminism, the rise of neoliberalism, and the decline of manufacturing in the west, until it botches the last five minutes. Back to the Future is a perfect movie that everyone loves and its plot hinges on incest and attempted rape.
So watching Big Business, I was surprised by its boldness relative to the current corporate era of Hollywood: how central class is to its story, how it doesn’t just hint at characters being gay but confirms it, how unabashedly it embraces such a classic form as full-scale farce. The last point might seem at odds with the first two – reaching back into the past instead of embracing progress or whatever – but they work in symbiosis. Isn’t all great farce, from Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde to Frasier, about class and queerness?
Rose Ratliff (that’s Tomlin) loves Jupiter Hollow and hates anyone who would look down on their small working-class community. She’s a classic West Virginian union activist type, and she’ll fight tooth and nail to stop the sale of Hollowmade, the one factory in this one-factory town, because she knows the factory will be liquidised and the land strip-mined. Sadie Ratliff (Midler) can’t wait to get out of here. Jupiter Hollow is small and boring, and as talented a yodeller as Sadie is and as good as she looks in gingham, she longs for the glamour of the big city. Where Rose is tough and loud and cynical, Sadie is starry-eyed. She’s both eager to think the best in everyone and much too easily impressed by material goods.
Sadie Shelton (Midler, again), in contrast, is a bitch on wheels. She’s a hard-nosed CEO who probably fired your dad. She pays off her son (Seth Green) to get better grades, because profit is the only motivation she understands. Her latest big business idea is to sell off some little old factory in some nowhere town that her dad bought when she was born, but she’ll need the shareholders’ approval to go ahead. Rose Shelton (Tomlin) is her sister’s nominal co-chair, but she has approximately zero interest in business. She finds a stray dog on her way into the office and takes him with her, using her scarf as a makeshift leash. She wears lefty political badges but doesn’t seem super political, just a directionless bleeding heart. If she knew about the plan to strip-mine Jupiter Hollow, she’d object. She doesn’t know about it and she already doesn’t like the idea of selling Hollowmade, just out of pure sentiment, but Sadie railroads her every time.
Rose and Sadie Ratliff go to New York to protest the sale – well, Rose goes to protest, Sadie tags along – and the two sets of twins end up in suites next door to one another at the Plaza Hotel. What follows is classically constructed farce: a series of near-misses, mistaken identities and misunderstandings, each as delightful as the last. A concierge thinks Sadie Ratliff is flirting when she invites him to her room (she just thinks it’s a really neat room!), so he goes up – after buying way too many condoms – only for Sadie Shelton to punch him in the face. Rose Ratliff thinks all the nice things the corporations send to their hotel room are trying to buy her off, and Sadie Ratliff thinks they’re just being nice, and Sadie Shelton is really annoyed none of her stuff is showing up. Sadie Shelton’s employees (Edward Herrmann and Daniel Gerroll) try to track down this R. Ratliff guy who’s been sending all the letters about that factory in West Virginia, but when they meet Rose Ratliff, they think that she’s Rose Shelton and that her fiancé, professional miniature golfer Roone (Fred Ward), is the R. Ratliff they’re looking for, so they get him to stay in their room to keep an eye on him, and he’s very insistent that he doesn’t want to put them out by making them sleep in the same bed, but uh, that’s very much not why they’re sleeping in the same bed.
I think pretty much nothing is as funny as well-written farce – which is why Frasier is my all-time favourite show – and Big Business is great farce. It pulls off a plot that relies entirely on characters being mistaken for other characters played by the same actors, and somehow never makes who’s who confusing for the viewer, even in the last act where both Sadies wear the same outfit. And it’s really funny, in the kind of special, pure way that farce can be. Farce is really good at exploring how identities – class identities, sexual identities, gender identities – are constructed, because it plays with how those identities are perceived. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Jack pretends to be a well-to-do gentleman named Earnest, only to discover after a play’s worth of identity-concealing shenanigans that he is the lost baby of Lady Bracknell’s late sister – and that his biological parents named him Earnest. Pretence and reality collapse into one another, and our ideas about class difference collapse with them. That’s what great farce does: it is about how we perceive one another and how we seek to be perceived, about how context creates meaning so much that Frasier Crane could think he’s setting a guy up on a date and the guy can think that Frasier is asking him out. “It never occurred to me that you might be gay,” Frasier says. The reply: “It never occurred to be that you would be straight!”
But it’s not like I like farce because it’s always super deep or whatever. It is, by definition, trivial. That’s what I like about it. I like farce because, when it’s done right, it’s funny in the purest sense, where you laugh right from your belly and it makes you laugh months later just to remember. Farce relies on such tight, clockwork construction, nailing the particular rhythm just right. There’s the moment when you realise the misunderstanding that’s happened, the anticipation of it, the squirming-in-your-seat of knowing something the characters don’t, and there’s the moment when they say or do whatever it is that is going to make the situation a whole lot worse. Farce is an old, enduring form, a backbone of popular comedy on stage and screen, yet I can’t imagine an example as pure as Big Business being released by a major studio today (and certainly not Disney). Major studio comedies are sort of dead now – another sacrifice to the all-consuming god of superhero movies – but long before that, American comedy movies became dominated by the kind of loose, improvisational feel of Judd Apatow movies (Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) or the barely-giving-a-shit product-placement-heavy cash-grabs of late-period Adam Sandler. Farce demands structure, and discipline, and giving a shit. And when you pull it off, it’s the funniest shit in the world.