|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 02 March 2004|
A realtor (Harvey Fierstein) shows them what seems to be the ideal old building, and it’s in their price range. It’s handsome, even includes stained glass windows. But it also includes elderly Mrs. Connelly (Eillen Essel), a sweet old Irish dear who lives in the rent-controlled upstairs apartment of this duplex. But, the realtor says, she hasn’t been well lately….
No sooner have Alex and Drew moved in than they discover what’s probably the reason the price was so reasonable. Mrs. Connelly may be a sweet old dear, but she’s also a problem. Not only does she pay as rent a fraction of what her apartment is worth, but the plays her TV at ear-shattering volume all night long. And she’s forever asking stay-at-home Alex’s help in shopping, where she carefully counts out each grape and each blueberry. When she pays her rent, she counts each dollar out very carefully—and slowly. She’s also not impressed by Alex being a writer—“I always thought of that more as a hobby than a profession,” she declares.
When their conflicts lead to the cops arriving, the cop on duty (Robert Wisdom) invariably sides with Mrs. Connelly, glaring at Alex and Nancy, muttering that he’s keeping an eye on them. A group of other old ladies regularly troops upstairs for practice with Mrs. Connelly, and they’re members of a brass ensemble.
In short, Mrs. Connelly is driving Alex and Nancy nuts. At first, they try to weather it all, but soon they realize that they must take steps, leading almost inevitably to the hiring of a hit man (James Remar)…..
Danny DeVito directed “Duplex” from a script by Larry Doyle. The idea is that it’s a dark comedy along the lines of, say, the original “The Ladykillers” or DeVito’s own “The War of the Roses.” Though there are some lively moments, particularly in the first half, the wry tone of the movie degenerates into a kind of sour, sneering smirk. We aren’t given any reason to sympathize with Alex and Nancy; they’re just too glad to be told that Mrs. Connelly may soon die. Although Stiller and Barrymore are usually appealing, their characters here are not developed enough for the appeal to kick in. They’re simply too ordinary, too unininteresting.
Even Mrs. Connelly isn’t fleshed out. She’s basically generic Sweet Old Dear, but has an occasionally-depicted jaundiced point of view (as in her remark about writing being a hobby). The movie shifts back and forth in its view of her, and of the couple downstairs, with such frequency that it becomes wearying. We grow impatient with Alex and Nancy. Surely, as the landlords, they could simply order Mrs. Connelly to turn her TV the hell down. Surely they wouldn’t be totally without any legal recourse in this situation. Surely they could at least try TALKING to her about all this. But no, this never happens, because the movie would come to a halt if anyone acted reasonably.
The result of all this is that the audience has no one to root for,
no one to identify with. And when you don’t like the characters, a comedy has a damned hard time being funny. Too much of what goes on is gracelessly predicted: Nancy’s boss is a fuss budget, and even at best she tends to be easily distracted. We know she’s going to be fired; we just wait and wait for it to happen. Several times, Alex proudly describes his extensive collection of first editions; we know that, somehow, the books will come to grief. Over and over, we’re told that Alex is on a very tight deadline for his novel (this isn’t very convincing), so we know that whatever happens, he will miss the deadline. A harpoon gun, of all unlikely objects, is literally hung on a wall in the first act; we know it’s going to go off at an important point. All the crises might as well be outlined in crimson neon; they could hardly be more obvious.
As Alex and Nancy increasingly try more extreme measures in dealing with Mrs. Connelly, they lose our sympathy. Mrs. Connelly’s obliviousness to her irritating nature keeps us from sympathizing with her, either. The local cop is always unpleasant and threatening toward Alex and Nancy, even when they’re innocent. So we don’t like him, either. Finally, it comes down to a matter of waiting, foot tapping impatiently, for the end of the movie—which itself is cynical and unsatisfying.
There are some amusingly wacky elements here and there, as when Mrs. Connelly tells them that her husband died in 1963 after 58 years of marriage. You do the math. But there are equally bad ideas: the sheer terror of the idea of seeing Mrs. Connelly in the nude, and when Nancy vomits on Alex. Go for the classy jokes, DeVito.
“Duplex” did dismal boxoffice business, but is likely to do all right
on home video. Stiller and Barrymore have enough fans out there that out of simple curiosity—it can’t be THAT bad, can it?—it will be rented. But there’s a problem here, too. The extras are very skimpy; there’s no commentary track, the “making of” documentary is chaotic and brief, and the deleted scenes uninteresting.
Better you should rent something else instead.