[Screen It]

"US"
(2019) (Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Horror: A family must contend with their evil doppelgangers unexpectedly showing up with the apparent intent of killing all of them.
PLOT:
As a young girl in the mid-1980s, Adelaide Wilson (MADISON CURRY) wandered off from her parents at night visiting the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Amusement Park and entered the Vision Quest -- Find Yourself attraction by herself. But she wasn't alone as she encountered her doppelganger, an incident that left her emotionally traumatized.

Now, thirty-plus years later, Adelaide (LUPITA NYONG'O) is married to Gabe (WINSTON DUKE) and has two kids, Zora (SHAHADI WRIGHT JOSEPH) and Jason (EVAN ALEX). They're an average middle-class family who are friends and neighbors with Kitty (ELISABETH MOSS) and Josh (TIM HEIDECKER) who have two kids of their own.

For a bit of summer relaxation, Gabe suggests they visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, something that leaves Adelaide unsettled. But she agrees as long as they return before dark. They do, but that night they're startled to find four strangers standing at the end of their driveway. They're not just any strangers, however, and instead are their doppelgangers who force their way into the house and take the family hostage.

But they're not exact duplicates in terms of personalities and behavior, with Adelaide's twin speaking in a croaky voice, Gabe's being a non-verbal bear of a man, Zora's being a creepy and speedy girl, and Jason's a masked, seemingly feral boy with a thing for matches. Realizing their doppelgangers mean them harm, and with Gabe being injured by his, it's up to Adelaide to figure out how to get themselves out of this predicament and stay alive.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
The old saying of "hope for the best and prepare (or sometimes expect) the worst" can be applied to many a thing in life. The one where it usually doesn't -- and certainly shouldn't -- is in regard to movies. While there's certainly always an exception to the rule, I highly doubt many studio personnel, film critics or average moviegoers who are involved in the making of a film or simply watching it hope it's good but expect a cinematic train wreck.

Oh, expectations are around, but they're usually headed in the opposite direction. If they're raised too high, however, that can sometimes lead to less than enthusiastic responses if the goods aren't as, well, good, as one expects. Case in point is the movie "Us."

With it being writer/director Jordan Peele's follow-up to the near-universally acclaimed "Get Out" and featuring some truly creepy trailers and TV commercials, a lot of expectations ended up near or in the stratosphere. And with the studio releasing a poster featuring a critic's quote that it's the scariest movie of all time, well, it better well deliver.

I don't know that reviewer and am not familiar with the website that ran his review, and thus have no idea if he's the type who's fond of overusing hyperbole or perhaps has never seen a horror movie before. And I certainly get why the studio would run such an ad. After all, if you like horror flicks, who wouldn't want to see the scariest of them all?

The problem is that while decent, it's not even close to the best and thus such comments (including that Peele is the next Hitchcock) and advertisements have only set up a lot of people for a letdown. That includes regular moviegoers such as those in the elevator with me after our screening whose reactions were a mix of "meh" and "I thought 'Get Out' was a lot better."

Perhaps inspired by the fact that he's the host of the upcoming reboot of "The Twilight Zone" TV series -- and as related to one episode from the original run in particular, "Mirror Image" -- Peele has fashioned his latest horror-comedy offering around the old notion of doppelgangers. You know, people who look and usually sound like you, but otherwise are different in some significant way.

That won't come as a surprise to anyone who's seen the trailers or TV commercials as they feature the revelation that an ordinary family of four -- mom Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o), dad Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and younger brother Jason (Evan Alex) -- discovers that a quartet of near look-alikes have arrived to terrorize them.

But before we get to that point -- that's really just a glorified home invasion story as melded with some zombie and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" elements -- Peele offers up a creepy prologue set in the past. 1986 to be specific, and following a brief clip featuring a social activism experiment I had completely forgotten about -- Hands Across America -- we see young Adelaide at the Santa Cruz amusement park (yes, the same one featured in the vampire flick "The Lost Boys" around that same time).

As oft happens in horror flicks, she wanders off by herself, ends up in an otherwise empty attraction called Vision Quest (with the subtitle "Find Yourself"), and slowly wanders around in what ultimately becomes a partial variation of the old house of mirrors funhouse. But one reflection, in particular, isn't made of glass, and when the girl backs up to her and turns, we only see the wide-eyed look of terror on her face.

Okay, so far so good as we then jump to the present where we see our family traveling first to their lakefront home and then to the beach, complete with family humor that will probably remind some viewers of the same in the original "Poltergeist." After a bit of time in front of the waves with their friends (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker), the family heads home and the other alternate family shows up.

Rather than being exact doppelgangers, however, these folks have something weird and decidedly creepy about them, as if the machine that spit them out was malfunctioning upon their creation. Adelaide's one speaks as if she's had her throat slit while suffering from laryngitis, while Gabe's doesn't speak at all and instead seems like a huge and nearly lumbering menace.

Jason's "twin" wears a mask, grunts, and growls and scampers about like some sort of feral creature, while Zora's is simply creepy. And when their intentions are eventually revealed, the original family goes into fight or flight mode with dear old mom taking the lead along the lines of Ripley or Sarah Connor.

Peele handles the creepy stuff with aplomb, but doesn't forget his comedy roots and occasionally throws in a funny bit here and there. While the overall cast is good, it's Nyong'o who stands out playing the troubled wife and mom who still hasn't escaped from her past as well as her evil "twin" who shows up and essentially seems like she's being played by an entirely different actress (and I mean that in the highest praise possible).

And just as Peele did with "Get Out," there's a range of thematic material, symbolism and social commentary present throughout the flick. That said, and without going into specifics to avoid spoilers, I found that they didn't work as well this time around. Nor does the eventual related explanation detailing what's really going on, while I figured out the big twist after the initial scene (which, once one gets past the "shock" value, doesn't make sense in terms of what we've just watched over the course of two hours).

Maybe I wouldn't have solved the mystery had I gone into our press screening as a blank slate without enough working knowledge of the scenario to near instantly connect all of the dots. But like most everyone else, I was exposed to that while my expectations were high based on Peele's earlier offering and all of the advertising and early praise being lavished on the film.

So, my advice to you, dear reader, is should you like horror films, go in hoping for the best but expecting that this won't be the scariest thing you've ever seen. Decent but not all that which others are exclaiming, "Us" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed March 19, 2019 / Posted March 22, 2019


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