Friday, Sept. 26
NEW YORK -- The darkly comic situations of "Duplex" remind of Danny DeVito's first two movies as director, except that this time, they're coated with scatological humor. Chances are that the resulting puke and gunge gags, coupled with a romantic pairing of Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore, will connect with teens and twentysomethings at the boxoffice. But more demanding viewers hoping for the cruel wit of DeVito's "Throw Momma From the Train" or "The War of the Roses" will likely be disappointed by its lack of comic bite.
Predictable situations mean that "Duplex" fails to scale any comic heights, though belly laughs will be had by those with an appetite for crass physical humor -- gags about excrement, sick and the like. The film's emotional core also is problematic. It demands that viewers empathize with a young couple who, however appealingly portrayed, are still yuppie upstarts trying to murder an old lady for no greater sin than being a nuisance.
The story, scripted by coproducer Larry Doyle, begins with Alex (Stiller) and Nancy (Barrymore) deciding they need more living space. So they move out of their Manhattan apartment and buy a duplex in Brooklyn. It's a great-looking pad, which comes with only one small problem -- the top floor's a rent-controlled apartment occupied by ninetysomething tenant Mrs. Connelly (86-year-old Brit Eileen Essel).
Alex and Nancy don't anticipate problems with Connelly and joke that she'll probably pass away soon, anyway. But from Night 1, they're kept awake by "Hawaii Five-O" reruns blaring from the old lady's TV. Daytimes aren't much better because Connelly pesters the pair to run errands and do repairs. What's more, she seems very healthy.
Complaints lead to trouble with New York cop Dan (Robert Wisdom from "Storytelling"), Connelly's self-styled guardian angel. So Alex and Nancy decide to rid themselves of the elderly pest by hiring a hit man. They fail. Despondent, they sell up.
The story resembles DeVito's earlier works as director, though he only became involved after Doyle's script was finished. There are clear similarities to "Throw Momma", DeVito's 1987 directorial debut, and his 1989 "Roses". The former tells of a talentless writer trying murder his odious mother. The latter's a bitter story of a husband and wife who duel over possession of their dream house.
Early scenes in which the couple find their house actually play like a rerun of "Roses". But Stiller and Barrymore lack the vengeful barbarity of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in that film. "Duplex" demands that the couple remain very nice people while they're trying to do a very nasty thing, and the director's desire to keep them likable become the film's fatal flaw. Couples who try to kill old ladies aren't good people, yet DeVito works overtime trying to convince us that they are. Some of the comic nastiness of "Roses" or "Train" would have given Alex and Nancy more credibility.
Stiller performs with his usual panache, reprising his accident-prone character from "Meet the Parents". He acts with every bone in his body and manages to make the gags funnier than they really should be. Barrymore hasn't quite got the comic chops to keep up. Essel is fine as the old lady, playing innocence with an undercurrent of grumpiness.
Tech credits are all very good indeed. Camerawork by Anastas Michos ("Death to Smoochy") is stylish. Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch's production design makes the duplex look both desirable and worn-in, and editing (by Lynzee Klingman and Greg Hayden) ensures the film moves at a snappy pace.
A Red Hour Films/Flower Films production
Director: Danny DeVito
Screenwriter: Larry Doyle
Producers: Ben Stiller, Stuart Cornfield, Jeremy Kramer, Nancy Juvonen, Drew Barrymore
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Meryl Poster, Jennifer Wachtell, Richard N. Gladstein, Alan C. Blomquist
Co-producer: Larry Doyle
Director of photography: Anastas Michos
Production designers: Robin Standefer, Stephen Alesch: Music: David Newman
Costume designer: Joseph G. Aulisi
Editors: Lynzee Klingman, Greg Hayden
Supervising sound editor: Bobby Mackston
Alex Rose: Ben Stiller
Nancy Kendricks: Drew Barrymore
Mrs. Connelly: Eileen Essel
Kenneth: Harvey Fierstein
Coop: Justin Theroux
Chick: James Remar
Officer Dan: Robert Wisdom
Running time -- 89 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
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