Danny DeVito will probably always be best-known as a memorable character actor, but he's done a lot of fine work behind the camera over the years and has demonstrated that his directorial voice is as distinctive as his actual voice. He's drawn to dark comedy (everything he's made fits in that category, save for the passionate biopic Hoffa), and what makes his dark comedies so thrilling is that he's truly willing to take the plunge into darkness. The characters contemplating murder in Throw Momma From the Train are permitted to become truly murderous. The marital spat in The War of the Roses marches inexorably to its bloody, inevitable conclusion. The wickedly funny Death to Smoochy goes to all sorts of nasty places for the sake of generating caustic laughs. In summary: I'm a fan.
Unfortunately, I'm not a fan of Duplex, DeVito's 2003 comedy starring Ben Stiller (Zoolander) and Drew Barrymore (Fever Pitch). On paper, it looks like the sort of thing that's right in the director's strike zone, but DeVito somehow manages to throw a series of wild pitches. The film is simultaneously too mean and too tame, misjudging our feelings about certain characters while timidly staying within the boundaries of the PG-13 rating (despite the fact that the story involves murder, sex and a murderous pornographer).
Duplex spotlights the misfortunes of Alex (Stiller) and Nancy (Barrymore), a yuppie couple apartment-hunting in New York City. After a long search, they finally find the perfect place: an attractive duplex in Brooklyn available at a shockingly reasonable price. The only catch: the upper half of the duplex is currently occupied by the elderly Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essell, Finding Neverland), and contractual stipulations prevent Alex and Nancy from throwing the old woman out. Initially, the couple is perfectly fine with this arrangement. After all, she seems like a nice, quiet old lady, so she won't be any trouble. Plus, she might die soon, and then the value of the duplex will increase considerably.
Ah, but after they move in, Mrs. Connelly reveals herself to be a surprisingly energetic and increasingly demanding tenant. She's constantly asking her new landlords to accompany her on long errands and to fix things she's broken. She makes all kinds of noise at night, and invites a brass band over to rehearse during the day. Alex and Nancy begin crumbling under the pressure, and before long they begin to contemplate how far they're willing to go to get rid of their nightmarish tenant.
The big problem with DeVito's depiction of this scenario is that he expects our sympathies to lie with Alex and Nancy. However, many of the stresses they endure seem more mildly irritating than truly nightmarish, and they end up in many situations that could have been easily avoided were it not for the screenplay's need to contrive various forms of conflict. On top of that, we have no reason to really despise Mrs. Connelly, as she seems merely difficult (in the way that many elderly people can be difficult) rather than truly awful (ala Momma in Throw Momma From the Train). At one point, Alex finds himself hiding in Mrs. Connelly's apartment while she takes a bath and... er... services herself. He peeks through the curtain and watches her in disgust and horror (because an old person doing something sexual is gross, obviously), but why is he peeking through the curtain in the first place? There's no motivation to do so. He brings his misery upon himself.
Additionally, the screenplay serves up a level of humor which feels surprisingly infantile in contrast to DeVito's earlier work (and I say that despite the fact that Death to Smoochy featured a whole sequence centered on penis-shaped cookies). I won't actually spoil the movie's jokes by describing them to you, but let's just say that they're less than inspired. Okay, I'll describe one. Mrs. Connelly has a macaw named “Little Dick,” meaning there are many scenes in which the old woman talks about how much she loves Little Dick. Okay, I'll describe one more. In one scene, Alex's attempt to fix a sink leads to dirty water filled with rancid meat being shot in Nancy's face. Nancy reacts by vomiting all over Alex's face. Mrs. Connelly then remarks that her macaw loves vomit and considers it a delicacy. Delightful.
There are individual things that work. I quite liked Harvey Fierstein's small turn as the shamelessly hammy salesman attempting to unload the duplex, and his handful of scenes benefit from a playful energy the rest of the film lacks. Despite the fact that she's working with C-grade material, Essell actually does fine work as Mrs. Connelly. David Newman's score strikes the right comic tone even when the film itself doesn't. Beyond that, there's little to praise. I'm not sure that I've ever seen less interesting work from either Stiller or Barrymore, and I'm certain that I've never seen less interesting work from DeVito. It's a shame Duplex put a screeching halt to DeVito's career behind the camera (as of the writing of this review, he's in post-production on the first feature he's directed in twelve years), but it's also completely understandable.
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 89 minutes
Release Year: 2003