Dir: Danny DeVito. US 2003. 90 mins
The Lady Killers it ain't, although this latest directorial effort from actor/writer/director/producer Danny DeVito does concern an attempt to bump off a dotty old lady who comes with the flat, as it were. DeVito actually may have been aiming for something closer to his own 1987 directorial debut Throw Mama From The Train, which revolved around efforts to eliminate a nasty and manipulative old woman. In either case, the humour in Duplex is so broad and obvious that it ends up being irritating and boring, rather than funny and entertaining. The preview audience, however, laughed through much of the movie, suggesting that it may fare better among a less demanding public than among a group of notoriously hard-to-please critics.
Written by Larry Doyle, whose previous work consisted of writing for the animated television series The Simpsons and stints at New York and Spy magazines, Duplex concerns a young Yuppie couple whose dream house turns into a full-blown nightmare. Alex (Stiller) and Nancy (Barrymore) stretch themselves financially to purchase their first home, a charming, turn-of-the-century duplex in Brooklyn (one of New York City's five boroughs). Nancy works for a magazine in Manhattan; Alex is a writer, finishing up his second novel.
They buy the gorgeous building knowing that a rent-controlled tenant comes with it, but they never bother to really check out her or her apartment. Once they move in, they discover that Mrs Connelly (a wonderful turn by 81-year old English actress Eileen Essell) isn't a lovely, frail old woman but an annoying, bothersome and very loud old lady who acts sweet and innocent but is actually manipulative, highly calculating, and intrusive. Her TV set blares all night and she constantly imposes upon the young couple to take her shopping, fix something, or simply talk to her. As their nerves become more and more frayed, Alex and Nancy begin contemplating murder.
The very long second act is all about their attempts to kill Mrs Connelly. The story doesn't go anywhere to speak of during this hour; it merely becomes more and more ridiculous and infantile in its humour. There is a fair amount of scatological and gross-out humour, including having Barrymore vomit in her husband's face, that seems geared more to children than adults - or, at the very least, exceedingly immature adults.
Stiller and Barrymore are appealing together - and would be much more so if the story were more cleverly conceived. Essell is a hoot as the not-really-dotty old woman (maybe the reinvigorated Ealing Studios could use her) but, again, the role is so broadly written that the humour is dead on arrival. The film isn't misanthropic, a charge levelled at DeVito's last directing effort, Death To Smoochy; rather, it is tedious and uninteresting. The characters and low-rent quips suggest a weak TV sitcom. One half-expects a laugh track to accompany it.
Prod co: Red Hour Films, Flower Films Prods
US dist: Universal
Exec prod: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Meryl Poster, Jennifer Wachtell, Richard N. Gladstein, Alan C. Blomquist
Prod: Ben Stiller, Stuart Cornfeld, Jeremy Kramer, Nancy Juvonen, Drew Barrymore
Scr: Larry Doyle
Cinematography: Anastas Michos
Production des: Robin Standefer, Stephen Alesch
Ed: Lynzee Klingman, Greg Hayden
Music: David Newman
Main cast: Ben Stiller, Drew Barrymore and Eileen Essell