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The lessons of the four Dougs

From the very beginning it feels as much like a documentary as a fantasy. This is the story of one man's life, circa 1996, stretched thin over the cracks between work and family. It even offers a motto for the era: "My whole life's an emergency!"

At work, our hero Doug has just been handed a second job for the paycheck of one. At home, he guiltily catches up on his daughter's graduation from Camp Fire Girls via videotape.

Putting it in a nutshell _ a hard one to crack _ the Los Angeles contractor and father describes his life this way, "Work is first. Family a close second. I'm a distant third. Bringing up the rear."

This is the setup for Multiplicity, a midsummer, midlife escape movie for folks who won't pay a babysitter to watch the White House blow up. It's the fantasy for working parents skating ahead of the cracking ice, folks who don't have the leeway for one bad day and who want the same thing for Christmas, for their birthday, their anniversary: "Time! Time! Time!"

Way back in the 1980s, when people still talked about role reversal, Michael Keaton played "Mr. Mom." Now it's the 1990s, and Michael Keaton is back starring in a role with hardly any maneuvering room.

Just when men and women figure out how to share the burden of family and work, the load has gotten too big for two people to carry. Today, in most families he's working (overtime) and she's working or about to be. The American family, as Keaton's wife says, "Doesn't need a schedule, it needs a miracle."

But Multiplicity comes up with a miracle, the one special effect that a stressed-out nation really wants Hollywood to create: a clone. Or two. Or three.

With the help of an only slightly mad scientist, Doug produces Doug 2 to go to work, then Doug 3 to take care of the home. They in turn produce the dimwitted Doug 4. And together they make as appealing a movie about male life as we've seen in years.

By now, Hollywood has been through an entire Rolodex of "new male" roles. Some of the men in movies could only change their ways if they were shot in the head, such as Harrison Ford in Regarding Henry, or dressed in drag, such as Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire.

Occasionally, an Arnold Schwarzenegger was enlightened by pregnancy, only to return to his terminating ways. Tom Hanks appeared as the "new man" playing a child in Big, and an idiot in Forrest Gump.

But now the same director who condemned Bill Murray to repeat Groundhog Day until the self-centered cad became sensitive, has given Michael Keaton multiple personalities.

I know what I should like best about Multiplicity. The movie offers a supporting cast for one of my pet and perverse theories. While all the world is promoting the two-parent family, I have long believed that we needed at least a three-parent family to get everything done. This scenario makes polyandry look practical.

Still, what's really most appealing about this "family" movie is the more subtle message about the changes men and women have gone through. The message says that for all the stress of partnership marriages, the "Time! Time! Time!" spent trying to balance work and family, our lives are actually richer when they are not limited to one sphere or another.

On the screen, Doug rediscovers this the hard _ and funny _ way. When Doug 2 is spun off to do the job, he slowly becomes a tougher, edgier piece of work. When Doug 3 is restricted to housekeeping, he starts getting obsessed with the right way to wrap leftovers.

As the comedy spins out of control, the clone club doesn't function very well. It turns out that the original isn't as happy when his roles are subcontracted out.

For a generation, we've been creating whole lives out of the old male and female parts. We still want it all. We just want a little less of it all.

Want to know the final '90s fantasy on and off the screen? It's the desire to slow life down to the human speed limit. Now that's a thought worth cloning.

Boston Globe Newspaper Co.