The Parent Trap Remains the High Point of the Nancy Meyers Cinematic Universe


In celebration of The Parent Trap’s 20th birthday (it was released on July 20, 1998), I would like to spend a moment of your Friday explaining why this movie—a remake of a Hayley Mills film I have not seen since childhood and which I will mostly pretend does not exist in the interest of focusing on the subject at hand—is the greatest of all Nancy Meyers’ directorial efforts. (If we’re talking screenplays, Baby Boom takes the top spot—but we’re not, so chill.)

With the exception of the early Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Jumpin’ Jack Flash, a perfectly decent spy thriller-comedy she wrote under a pseudonym, every movie written by Nancy Meyers is about the existential crises of rich white people. Even her posters, for the most part, are blindingly white in their design. Rich white people surrounded by large swaths of rich white space, looking around with rich white smiles that express both discomfort and ease, as though they’ve never encountered a problem they couldn’t solve with their rich white privilege. Oh, and each and every one of them behaves like an utter lunatic from fade in to fade out—like a rich white person for whom there is no consequence worse than temporary dissatisfaction.

The Meyers Cinematic Universe is so unrecognizable that it has more in common with The Avengers than a fairy tale like Pretty Woman.

Meyers never drifts her black Mercedes sedan outside of its lane, which is usually found on a coastal road (east or west) going in and out of a town that houses multiple artisanal cheese shops. And that shameless, unwavering focus on stories that exist in a bubble free from the micro- and macro-level problems afflicting the majority of her audience does a wonderful thing: it renders them universal. Relatability has an expiration date, and Meyers’ refusal to write comedies that are anything but explorations of the One Percent’s struggles with, among other hurdles, speedy intercontinental travel and being dissatisfied with the number of ovens in one’s kitchen allow them to exist somewhere out of time—in a place that can be enjoyed and gawked at by everyone. The Meyers Cinematic Universe is so unrecognizable that it has more in common with The Avengers than a fairy tale like Pretty Woman. Which brings me to The Parent Trap, a film about four people who make the kinds of inane, impulsive decisions only afforded to those who have no idea hunger or homelessness actually exist.

Nick Parker (Dennis Quaid), an American, and Elizabeth James (the late Natasha Richardson), an Englishwoman, have a whirlwind romance, get married aboard a trans-Atlantic steamship (again, what year is it), and decide to divorce after the births of their identical twin daughters, Hallie and Annie (both played by Lindsay Lohan, in her first roles). Nick takes one to his California vineyard where he makes wine (presumably alone); Elizabeth takes the other to her gorgeous London row house where she designs a line of very popular wedding dresses, and they agree to never speak again. This would be unhinged parental behavior on Earth, where the actions of a parent have long-term consequences on the mental health of their children, but when success is guaranteed and happiness is a kitchen remodel away, this kind of forced separation is all but rational!

Twelve years later, when the movie begins, the two girls meet at an American summer camp tucked deep in a perfect forest, where the children of some 200 other couples—all rich, all heterosexual, all on holiday—can play strip poker, practice their fencing, and construct intricate booby traps without making a sound. If this were the real world, you’d call their chance encounter an unbelievable coincidence. But this is perhaps one of three or four summer camps that exists in the Meyers Universe. In fact, I would guess that fewer than 1000 people live on her version of Earth, which looks something like this:

With those odds, it would be more unbelievable that they wouldn’t have met! A fact that, in a way, suggests Nick and Elizabeth’s decision to send them there was meant to facilitate their reuniting. But let’s not get caught up with that possibility, likely though it may be.

After discovering each other—and learning what their parents did to keep their existences hidden—the two girls very calmly (given the circumstances) decide to switch places in order to spend time with the parent they’ve never known. Meanwhile, their campmates are unfazed by their similarities. And why would they have any reason to raise an eyebrow at two white girls who happen to look alike? The gene pool of this universe is shallow, clear, and meant for wading—its calm, sparkling surface forming a horizon line with a perpetually blue sky.

What follows is a delightful slapstick comedy of manners as the two girls try to bring their parents back together.

What follows is a delightful slapstick comedy of manners as the two girls try to bring their parents back together. The only threat to their plan is Meredith Blake, a twentysomething vulture who is engaged to Nick only because she covets his money. In the end, of course, she is extricated from their lives. But Blake, penniless and uncultured, is an easy villain to overcome. You almost expect her character to explode into a burst of light after walking offscreen for the last time—the Meyers Universe’s punishment for those who make it to their 27th year without owning two houses.

If this sounds like an attack of The Parent Trap, let me be clear: I think it is perfect. Like all of Meyers’ films (this was the first she directed herself), it is long but perfectly paced, sharply written—smart, snippy, and immensely quotable—and has an important secondary function as real estate porn. Quaid and Richardson have a sparkling chemistry—they make us believe in fate (not to mention magic)—and Lohan’s performance is a career-best, which isn’t even shade. Like It’s Complicated and The Holiday—and even The Intern—it exists in a galaxy far far away, and feels almost offensive in its refusal to acknowledge anything beyond the culture of rich, white people who rode the Concorde before its fleet was retired. But of all her directorial efforts, it’s the one with the most heart. A film that strikes a rare balance between broad comedy and family film, that endears as much as it confounds. A film that makes you believe that in some dimension, on some other version of Earth, love was made for me and you.

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