Throw Momma from the House
With Cold Creek Manor and Under the Tuscan Sun in theatres now and House of Sand and Fog on the horizon, movies are giving the world of real estate more coverage than ever. However, most of these flicks will probably give prospective buyers second thoughts about purchasing a house. Among the host of current cautionary pictures is Danny DeVito's Duplex, a comedy about two people who become obsessed with how to get rid of a tenant who is ruining both their lives -- with darkly funny results.
If the above sounds familiar, it's because DeVito borrows many an element from his own, similarly-themed '80s movie Throw Momma from the Train. Nevertheless, Duplex messes up a few times on its own, as the premise is a one-joke affair that grows tiring after it's used for the fifteenth time...and that's before the half-hour mark. Although I didn't find myself wishing to endure the ill-conceived "thrills" of Cold Creek Manor again while viewing Duplex, the repetitive humor and thin storyline did make DeVito's scattershot Death to Smoochy seem like a work of comedic art by comparison.
Alex (Ben Stiller) and Nancy (Drew Barrymore) are a newlywed yuppie couple heading out into the big world of married life. Next on their list is to find the perfect house in which to raise a family (and one falling under their price range), which they soon do, in the form of a spacious Brooklyn duplex. After taking a look around and meeting Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essel), the sweet old lady who lives in the apartment upstairs, Alex and Nancy fall in love with the place and proceed to move in. They soon discover that Mrs. Connelly isn't as nice and innocent as she seems. Small annoyances quickly turn into an irritating pattern. Mrs. Connelly has Alex running chores while he should be working, lets her TV blast all night long, and generally bugs the couple so much, they start wondering if she's doing it on purpose. Eventually, in order to get some peace and quiet, Alex and Nancy resort to using any means possible to rid themselves of the seemingly indestructible Mrs. Connelly.
Duplex couldn't be more deceptive if a shady real estate agent were in charge of the advertising. From the trailers, it appears the film has a premise abundant with potential for dark humor, directed by a man who used such films as The War of the Roses and Matilda to hone his skills. But once viewers are let inside the world of Duplex, they find the ground floor damaged by missed opportunities, a languid pace, and a general laziness when it comes to fueling the movie's sense of humor. And the upstairs isn't any better.
Still, by no means is Duplex a joke-free or even joyless comedy. It's just that you spend more time wondering what DeVito could have improved than you do watching the film itself. If you ask me, screenwriter Larry Doyle (a writer for "The Simpsons"and "Beavis and Butt-Head" making his feature debut) should have done things in reverse. Instead of Alex and Nancy facing the neighbor from Hell, have Mrs. Connelly (played with comedic delight by newcomer Eileen Essel) be the protagonist, fending off this yuppie couple trying to start their shallow lives anew in the apartment below. It probably would have been a drastically different movie, but it certainly would tidy up the ending, which is diabolical in concept but leaves you with a sour taste in your mouth. As is, however, Duplex hardly makes a dent with its humor, the jokes either falling flat on delivery or used over and over again because they worked the first time.
I liked some of the gags involving Essel's character, especially her battle with Alex over a clapper-controlled TV and the scene showing how puzzled Alex and Nancy are while trying to figure out Mrs. Connelly's exact age.
But for the most, things become tiring after a while, and it doesn't help that DeVito also throws into the mix too many homages to Throw Momma from the Train, though his take on the story comes with the right atmosphere, appropriately getting darker as Alex and Nancy realize Mrs. Connelly appears to be almost invincible. Duplex eventually takes on a made-for-TV aura. I felt like it should be playing after a "Perfect Strangers" reunion episode on ABC.
Stiller gives a decent performance as Alex, a writer who would rather be working on meeting his deadline than waiting for Mrs. Connelly to finish counting grapes and blueberries at the market. Barrymore has a bit less luck, coming off as a little too whiny. On the other hand, I enjoyed Essel as the old lady who may or may not be the harmless octogenarian she appears to be.
Harvey Fierstein gets brief camera time as a real estate agent, James Remar does good work as a hitman/pornographer, and Robert Wisdom has some interesting scenes as a police officer frequently called to the duplex for one reason or another.
To put it simply, Duplex fits the definition of a September movie -- a less-than-high-quality flick released during that gap between the end of the summer blockbusters and fall Oscar contenders. As early fall fare, Duplex provides a decent, diverting enough escape, but I'm afraid that's about the only level this comedy works on.
MY RATING: ** (out of ****)
(Released by Miramax Films and rated "PG-13" for sexual content, language, and some violence.)
Review also posted on www.ajhakari.com.