By Christopher Campbell | Spout February 16, 2011 at 6:25AM
Everyone is familiar with the "wrong man" genre, right? If you've seen a few Hitchcock films, you're definitely familiar with the idea: a man or woman is mistaken for or otherwise accused of being someone he/she is not. But is anyone aware of the half-assed inverse of that classification, which I am going to obviously dub the "right man" genre? You can easily figure out the idea: a man or woman claims to be someone he/she appears not to be, because an (alleged?) impostor has taken his/her place. "Unknown," which opens this weekend, is a perfect example of this sort of film. Liam Neeson plays a scientist who wakes up from a short coma to find that his life and wife (January Jones) have apparently been stolen by Aidan Quinn. Basically, he's the "right man" -- or so he says or thinks or believes or whatever the case is in the different denouements that may play out within this twist-ending-availing genre.
While I am sure that I've seen a similar scenario a billion times before, I actually can not recall very many films that feature the "right man" plot. And those I can recall are so dissimilar that they almost don't really fit together aside from my forcing of genre classification. If you have any others in mind that can be thrown on the pile, please do let me know.
"Face/Off" (John Woo, 1997)
I love mentioning this film, because I do believe it's so underrated and yet whenever I say that, fans come out in full force from all areas of cinephile circles to defend it. The "right man" set up here is that a special agent (John Travolta) goes undercover by literally borrowing the face of a comatose terrorist (Nic Cage) but then becomes screwed when that criminal wakes up and steals his face and takes over his identity and wife (Joan Allen). And nobody believes Cage-Travolta because Travolta-Cage has killed everyone aware of the mission. Slightly confusing (in trying to explain it, that is) and terribly implausible, yet also so awesome because you then get Travolta impersonating Cage and vice versa. I think the result is Travolta's best performance since his "comeback." A clip:
"Trading Places" (John Landis, 1983)
In a way, "Face/Off" is just a remake of "Trading Places" with face-swapping in place of social class swapping. And, of course, in the Woo movie Travolta and Cage don't unite along with a hooker to thwart some higher evil (capitalist geezers). Anyway, in this case, as in some others, the "right man" is not necessarily the protagonist. But if Eddie Murphy was the villain and we only really followed Dan Aykroyd, as the well-off investor whose home, job and status are handed to a homeless man, the comedy would easily be defined by my classification. One other connection it has with "Unknown," by the way: both films involve a kind of crop and the possible financial ruination of those who invest in such. A clip of Aykroyd in the scene where the "right man" would be defending who he really is. Here it's just defending his innocence:
"Taking Care of Business" (Arthur Hiller, 1990)
In more than a way, "Taking Care of Business" (aka "Filofax") really is a remake of "Trading Places." Here, Murphy is replaced by James Belushi as an escaped con who takes over the home and persona of a yuppie (Charles Grodin, in Ayrkoyd's role) after finding the rich guy's personal organizer. I haven't seen it in 20 years, but I think the guys even become pals in the end. Again, we don't primarily follow the "right man" in this story, and it's weird that someone could so easily substitute for a wealthy businessman on his own. A clip right out of "Trading Places," with Anne De Salvo in the Jamie Lee Curtis part:
"Desperately Seeking Susan" (Susan Seidelman, 1985)
Sometimes the plight of the "right man" is not a result of a conspiracy, criminal or conspirator. In the case of this film, which was inspired by Jacques Rivette's "Celine and Julie Go Boating" (I admit I've not seen it), a housewife (Rosanna Arquette) hits her head and gets amnesia -- like Neeson in "Unknown" -- and then because of an awesome jacket she's just purchased she's mistaken for the woman she's stalking (Madonna). But once again we mostly follow the identity thief in this example, mainly because it works for a feminist angle in which the housewife is fantastically living out her dream as a single, free-spirited type. Also, Aidan Quinn is in this, too, as the guy who mistakes Arquette for the pop star and falls for her. I can't find a good clip from the movie so here's a bad clip from the stage musical adaptation:
"Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey" (Peter Hewitt, 1991)
If I include this underrated sequel to "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," I might as well include the "Bodysnatchers" and "Stepford" movies, and anything else involving pod people and clones. But I think "Bogus Journey" is more aligned with the idea of the "right man" genre than other doppelganger impostor plots. In the movie, Bill and Ted (Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves) are literally killed and then replaced by robot versions of themselves. They literally overcome Death (William Sadler) in a great "Seventh Seal" homage and then have to convince people that they're the real Wyld Stallyns stars. And they've got their own good robots to help out. Here's a clip of the real Bill and Ted thwarting the evil impostors' plan: