Los Angeles Times

Movie review: 'Duplex'

Chicago Tribune Movie Critic

2-1/2 stars (out of 4)

In New York City, life can be awful and work can be hell. But renting can be worse, as director Danny DeVito and stars Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore try to show in "Duplex."

Can the agony of apartment-finding in today's greed-crazed times become the stuff of movie comedy? Maybe, but not this time. "Duplex" should have been good - funnier, or at least better than, what we see here. DeVito is an expert comic performer and director, and Stiller and Barrymore are a fine, strong, daffily talented pair. Their movie has promise, top performances and some sharp jokes. It's a would-be darkish, bad-taste comedy about a likable yuppie couple and the little old lady upstairs from Brooklyn rent-control hell (played by a marvelous 86-year-old Irish actress, Eileen Essell).

But "Duplex" is no "Ladykillers," a wondrous 1955 British crime comedy in which a horde of crooks, led by Alec Guinness, try in vain to terminate the indestructible Katie Johnson. And it's not even another "Throw Momma From the Train," DeVito's own mostly hilarious 1987 variation on the theme. "Duplex" is meaner and slighter and less funny - not what we'd like from DeVito, Stiller or Barrymore.

Stiller plays bright, lightly paranoid Alex, a young novelist struggling through his sophomore effort. Barrymore is his super-mate, a designer/editor at a trendy NYC mag who's supporting Alex through his novel. Unable to find suitable Manhattan digs, this cute couple migrate to Brooklyn near the bridge, falling for the ministrations of glib salesman Kenneth (Harvey Fierstein), who sells them a huge, roomy duplex with one drawback: the upstairs presence of octogenarian Irish-American tenant Mrs. Connelly (Essell). But, Kenneth cynically assures them, she may not be a problem much longer - and the quavering voice emanating from her rooms when they call convinces them.

Famous last words. Never underestimate rent control or determined 80-year-olds. Soon, Mrs. Connelly is driving Alex and Nancy batty with her incessant demands for "little errands," her infuriating television habits (up all night with the set full blast), her mean parrot and such added surprises as the brass band that regularly rehearses, out of tune, in her apartment. The couple tries to accommodate, but Connelly is a bottomless pit (or pit bull). Their limit is reached when Alex's novel, composed at Starbucks, far from his noisy apartment, is destroyed, and when Nancy loses her job because of fatal layout errors caused by Mrs. Connelly's work-hours badgering.

No help seems imminent from friends, realtor Kenneth or the ubiquitous local cop, Officer Dan (Robert Wisdom), who's always around when something bad happens, loves Mrs. Connelly and clearly suspects Alex and Nancy of little-old-lady abuse or worse, even before they embark on the campaign of embittered reprisal that may well lead them to murder.

Somewhat in the vein of "Throw Momma," director DeVito's debut theatrical feature, "Duplex" is a comedy about the seemingly unspeakable: two likable young people driven to trying to kill a "helpless" old lady. But where "Momma" co-stars DeVito and Billy Crystal could reconcile you to slaughter, Stiller, Barrymore and Essell really can't.

I got turned off by Alex and Nancy as soon as they started contemplating bloodshed - not because dark comedy or killing jokes can't work, but because writer Larry Doyle doesn't set them up well enough. Despite a half-clever "surprise" ending, the comedy is too flat - or maybe too flatulent. The movie's motto seems to be: "When in doubt, break wind or open the toilets." And while some of the greatest American movie comedies could be accused of bad taste or lack of mercy (like those of Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges or, more recently, the Coen brothers), they had an elegance and wit that "Duplex" lacks.

DeVito didn't work on the script beforehand with Doyle, and it shows. The movie lacks DeVito's usual flawless attack and sense of fun, the sheer joie de vivre with which he saturates his best work. DeVito could always be brutal, as either an actor or moviemaker, because of that sense of fun. With his pint-size demeanor and elfin cool, he made mean-spiritedness hilarious.But this movie lacks cool of any kind. Most of all, it lacks a rationale for the characters' behavior. We can be amused by the assaults on Anne Ramsey of "Throw Momma" because she's both revolting and sadistic. The remarkably adept Essell plays a calculating old lady with a sweet demeanor, and her pink-cheeked leprechaun air insulates her against sadism.

To accept what's going on, we have to know there's no way out, see the couple being driven absolutely crazy, before we grant them (temporary) license to kill. Here, they seem just a spoiled yuppie pair who have no guts, and though that's not a bad ignition point for comedy, the performances and Doyle's script are too obviously intended as sympathetic. "We're all a bit like this," the script seems to wink at us.

Well, no, we aren't. Perhaps "Duplex" suffers from being made in our more unfettered times. Like DeVito's last comedy, the weirdly unspeakable "Death to Smoochy" (which had a lot of super-talented people floundering in a mire of stale satire), this movie doesn't know its own limits. It's stylish, it's sort of smart, it's full of misplaced talent. But it's not funny enough, and maybe, in a way, not dark enough either.

Directed by Danny DeVito; written by Larry Doyle; photographed by Anastas N. Michos; edited by Lynzee Klingman; production designed by Robin Standefer; music by David Newman; produced by Ben Stiller, Stuart Cornfeld, Jeremy Kramer, Nancy Juvonen, Drew Barrymore. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday, Sept. 26. Running time: 1:29. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sexual content, language and some violence).
Alex - Ben Stiller
Nancy - Drew Barrymore
Mrs. Connelly - Eileen Essell
Kenneth - Harvey Fierstein
Officer Dan - Robert Wisdom
Coop - Justin Theroux
Jean - Swoosie Kurtz
Herman - Wallace Shawn

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times