P.S.H. I Love You: Enter the suck zone of 1996’s “Twister”

Twister Philip Seymour Hoffman Twister

Before he passed away at the age of 46, Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in 52 feature films. Starring roles, character pieces, chameleon work—he left a legacy nearly unmatched in both quality and quantity. Now, with P.S.H. I Love You, Jonah Koslofsky wafts through the cornucopia of the man’s offerings.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t do very many big-budget blockbusters. Outside of a Mission: Impossible sequel and a Hunger Games or three, the actor rarely appeared in summer multiplex offerings. In hindsight, Twister marks something of an anomaly, a rare Hoffman appearance in a flick more concerned with the weather than complex, interpersonal dynamics. 

But Twister’s not just a nineties disaster movie – it’s the nineties disaster movie. Grossing half-a-billion dollars (in 1996 money!), this endearing and frequently funny movie about a team of tornado chasers has held up pretty well. As cows soar past our heroes and everybody keeps talking about something called “the suck zone,” intentionally or not, Twister’s stakes and scale are so absurd that the whole thing regularly entertains.  

Oh, the days when our biggest existential woes came from two gusts of wind crashing into each other. That’s not to belittle the trauma of Jo Thornton (Helen Hunt) – as we see in the opening scene, young Jo lost her father to a tornado. Decades later, she’s grown up to be a twister scientist, trying to track the trajectories of these random, destructive cyclones. We’re shown Jo from the point-of-view of Bill (Bill Paxton), her soon-to-be-ex-husband, who’s left the high stakes world of tornado chasing for a soft job as a weatherman and a new spouse (Jami Gertz) who doesn’t seek out life-or-death thrills. 

The script, from Jurassic Park creator/global warming denier Michael Crichton and slasher actress Anna-Marie Martin, builds a whole world around these tornado folks. There’s Jo and Bill’s scrappy crew, featuring Alan Ruck as the maps guy and Hoffman as “Dusty.” (There are a few others in their team, but I’m not sure why they’re there.) The villains – who aren’t wind – are a team of “corporate” chasers, led by Cary Elwes’ Dr. Jonas Miller, who’s apparently “only in it for the money.” What? 

Director Jan de Bont (Speed) competently stages all this over-the-top fluff. It’s a stormy day, Bill gets swept up in the chase again, and many a-twister twists. The special effects, necessary to show these tornados, remain convincing. But it’ll probably always look ridiculous to watch a cow fly by a moving car. 

Jo’s big goal is to release a vat of tiny sensors into a tornado’s center to better study their behavior but to do that she has to get herself, and the sensors, directly in front of one. In other words, the team is trying to send a bunch of little balls into “the suck zone” – for science! And yet, it sort-of makes sense. 

On the other hand, the love triangle between Bill, Jo, and Bill’s new fiancé Melissa is a snooze. The movie isn’t really interested in exploring the psychological implications of Jo’s obsession with the same extreme weather that killed her father – that’s not why you watch a movie called Twister. To his credit, Hoffman seems to understand this completely and has no problem going as big and loud as the movie he’s in. 

As the folks over at Honest Trailers have already pointed out, Jack Black seems to have based his entire persona around Hoffman’s Dusty. What his character lacks in self-respect he makes up for in enthusiasm. It’s never really made clear why Dusty chases tornados or what he brings to the team, but that’s not really a problem. He’s the sidekick who isn’t taking things seriously – Hoffman commits to this archetype, and his screen presence reflects it, entirely. His performance is all surface, and here, that fits like a glove. 

A lot of actors would kill to have a lane this clearly marked. With less than a dozen screen credits to his name when Twister released, Hoffman could’ve built a career playing slight variations of Dusty. While we’re lucky he didn’t, it’s wild imaging the actor continuing to work without the rigor and depth that would define his résumé. At the same time, anyone who wants to see the “range” of a great thespian should look no further than Twister to Capote (or any number of Hoffman’s other, later roles). 

Though if you’re considering watching Twister in 2020, you probably shouldn’t do it for Hoffman alone. This thing would play best on a big screen – where it reappeared again this summer at drive-ins, nationwide. But even in ideal conditions, a bit of ironic distance is necessary to enjoy Twister to its fullest. News broke a few months ago that Universal was looking to reboot the property, and I can’t say I’m optimistic about this outcome. How do you improve on the peak of a genre that was only ever popular twenty-some years ago? 

If the studio does go ahead with its retread, I hope they understand what they’re working with. This is a silly movie about big wind. That’s ok. If only we could all commit to the silly way Philip Seymour Hoffman commits to Dusty. 

Twister Trailer:

Jonah Koslofsky
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