Did the Olsen twins ever make a great film?

Fourteen years after Mary-Kate and Ashley stepped away from acting, we reflect on the siblings’ on-screen legacy.

Words

Justine Smith

Growing up in the 1990s, Olsen twin fandom was unavoidable. Even if you didn’t watch Full House, the pair had a bustling video career – a combination of holiday-themed made for TV fodder and episode length adventures that involved mysteries and songs. Over a decade after they stepped away from acting, it’s time to reflect on their shared on-screen career and ask, did the Olsen twins ever make a great film?

Most films the Olsens made were never screened theatrically, relegated to the home video market and afternoon slots on family television networks. As the stand-out stars of Full House, it was clear that from an early age those managing their careers sought to capitalise on their cuteness and cash in as long as they could. It seems unlikely that anyone could have had the foresight to imagine the Olsen Twins movie gravy train would run for nearly two decades.

Early movies like Double, Double Toil and Trouble and To Grandmother’s House we Go rely exuberantly on cuteness. With the twins handed a few snappy lines and expected to quiver their bottom lip in a scene or two, thin narrative threads allow for maximum adorable exposure and minimum effort. While these films have their moments, such as the meme-worthy scene where the twins tip a black New York busker some chicken drumsticks in To Grandmother’s House We Go, these films are mostly unwatchable. Even this moment is more memorable for the sheer surrealism of forcing toddlers to be racist than any measure of quality.

Of these early films, only one stands out as passable. It Takes Two is among the few theatrical films the twins ever made. It’s a cheap Parent Trap knockoff where a set of identical strangers swap places and hope to unite their parental guardians in marriage. Both stretch their acting talents with accents: Mary-Kate goes full New York as the fast-talking Amanda from the Bronx, and Ashley steps into the role of Alyssa, a baby socialite who inexplicably has a British accent, in spite of being raised by an American father.

Both Kirstie Alley and Steve Guttenberg step in as guardian characters with a surprising amount of chemistry. They both give sincere and heartfelt performances as the two identical but not actual twins try to bring them together. The film was directed by perhaps the biggest name director the girls ever worked with, Andy Tennant, who would go on to direct Ever After: A Cinderella Story, Sweet Home Alabama and Hitch, among others.

Overall, the film works because the actors build a sincere rapport and there are not enough bad moments to drag the rest down. Aside from an always welcome food fight scene and a lot of good-natured pleasantries, the film is still a discount Disney’s The Parent Trap. This stale effort nonetheless marks the height of their cinematic efforts.

It would be nearly a decade before their next film would have another theatrical release. Meanwhile, they’d make direct-to-video features like Our Lips are Sealed, where they go into witness protection and live with a Kangaroo in Australia, and Holiday in the Sun, a feature-length commercial for Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas.

Most of these films rely solely on the cuteness of the twins, and weak variations on the odd couple narrative. There is a high emphasis on the awkwardness of being a preteen, and most of their films channels in the relatability of how uncomfortable it is to want to be popular, find a boyfriend and do well in school. In spite of how generic these portrayals of growing up are, they also ring false, as the Olsen twins represented more of an aspirational teen persona than anything remotely real or relatable.

The last film featuring the Olsen twins as a unit, 2004’s New York Minute, is an oddity and feels like a logical endpoint for their cinematic output. In the film, the Olsens play twins: one is a rebel musician (Mary-Kate) and one is a straight A student (Ashley). The film takes place over 24 hours (excluding an epilogue set months later), as the twins rush to accomplish disparate goals and learn they’re not so different after all. It is a very ‘early 2000s’ affair, from the awkward ill-fitting fashion to the fact major plot points revolve around music piracy and a Simple Plan concert.

The film is representative of most of their work, albeit with a higher budget. The preconceived notion of who the Olsen twins are and who they represent does nearly all the leg-work in the film and it seems quickly apparent that neither sister has either the drive or the talent to pull of comedy or drama. The film is a great capsule of a specific moment and a very particular fandom but does not stand up as a movie at all.

Watching New York Minute today, it is hardly surprising that the pair gravitated away from the world of movies given their apparent inability to bring depth and nuance to their characters. Perhaps it was a symptom of being raised on camera in roles that relied on catchphrases and cuteness rather than sincerity or naturalism. To be great actors, it seems likely they would have to unlearn most of what had been expected from them since they were six months old: it’s hard to blame them for backing out.

Looking back on the Olsen twins’s acting career, a handful of good moments stand out. But although their films are generally geared towards a not-so-discerning young audience, and while it is easy to see why so many viewers fell in love with their wholesome and silly persona, not even nostalgia on overdrive can make these movies seem better than they really are.

Published 13 Jun 2018

Tags: Ashley Olsen Mary-Kate Olsen Olsen twins

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