Duplex (2003)

reviewed by
David N. Butterworth

A film review by David N. Butterworth
Copyright 2003 David N. Butterworth
**1/2 (out of ****)

When venturing behind the camera instead of in front of it, Danny DeVito (whose acting credits are too numerous to mention; perhaps you've seen him in the current "Anything Else"?) tends to favor darkness over "lite."

As director he's made five films to date, from 1987's acerbic "Throw Momma from the Train" (with Billy Crystal) to last year's poorly received "Death to Smoochy" (with Robin Williams). Four of the five (with the exception of the biopic "Hoffa," about the infamous union organizer) have been black comedies in the broadest--and blackest--sense of the word.

Similarly all of DeVito's black comedies feature a recurring--and unnerving--theme, that of the burning desire of one character to rid the world of another. Oh to be a fly on the wall at one of *his* therapy sessions!

DeVito's latest film, "Duplex," is no exception, maintaining the actor director/producer's profound fascination with the darkly comic and absurd. It features Ben Stiller ("Zoolander") and Drew Barrymore ("Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle") as yuppie writers who move into their dream Brooklyn brownstone only to find the second floor rent-controlled apartment occupied by a particularly stubborn old lady who, for only $88 per month, proceeds to make their life a living hell.

The film has already been dubbed (or is that drubbed?) "Meet the Grandparent" or "Throw Momma from the Attic" by wiseacre critics who like to play those kinds of witty movie title renaming games.

"Duplex" is assuredly dark but for much of the time very funny, aided and abetted by the typically fine and freewheeling Stiller, who's at his best when playing a character frustrated beyond the pale (he was the best thing about "Meet the Parents" and he's the best thing about "Duplex," a Mr. Furious for the homeowner set). It doesn't take a degree in casting to realize that Stiller's presence would enhance a film of this nature--if you like him you'll probably get more mileage out of the film than if you don't--but DeVito should also be applauded for singling out Eileen Essel as the Irish octogenarian firmly lodged upstairs.

Aggravating senior citizens are not exactly a novel concept, but Essel takes the stereotype and runs with it, eliciting laughs a plenty into the process. Larry Doyle's script is as predictably one-note as Essel's character, but the two never fail to amuse.

Interestingly enough this is the only DeVito-directed movie to date in which he himself doesn't appear (although he does provide the film's opening and closing voiceovers, the former backing cute cartoon versions of Stiller and Barrymore in a peppy newlywed montage). Perhaps DeVito was too busy readying his "Karen Sisco" for primetime to serve double duty as director *and* star.

That decision doesn't necessarily strengthen his role behind the lens since, despite the sound contributions of its principal tenants, there are times when "Duplex" feels two units shy of a domicile.

David N. Butterworth

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