“Duplex” is a cartoonish black comedy about a young couple driven to financial ruin and finally to plotting murder by their elderly tenant.
Alex (Ben Stiller) and Nancy (Drew Barrymore) think they’ve found their dreamhouse, a spacious duplex in Brooklyn with three fireplaces. At first, their upstairs tenant, Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essel), seems like a sweet old lady with a lilting Irish accent. They also figure that she’s so old, she won’t be around long. But after they move in, she constantly interrupts Alex, who is trying to finish writing a book, to ask for help or complain about a problem with the apartment. Her television blasts all night at full volume. And she seems to be determinedly healthy.
As in director Danny DeVito’s other comedies, Throw Mama From the Train, The War of the Roses, and Death to Smoochy, the humor stems from watching nasty people torture each other. Co-screenwriter Larry Doyle’s background writing for cartoons may be the reason this feels like it was written for Sylvester and Tweetie-Pie. Except with less heart.
There are some funny moments as Alex and Nancy helplessly try to set some boundaries only to find themselves caught up in yet another excruciating errand for Mrs. Connelly, and when their schemes to get her out of the house backfire (once literally). Barrymore is refreshingly without any movie star vanity and seems to relish the chance to look silly. But with no one to root for, it all gets tired quickly, even at less than 90 minutes running time, and the pay-off is not worth the wait.
Parents should know that the movie has a lot of comic violence (as in a cartoon, everyone survives without serious injury), including a gunshot wound. There are some gross-out moments. Characters use strong language and there are non-explicit sexual references and situations.
Families who see this movie should talk about how they have handled difficult people and situations.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy that classic of the hit-on-the-head comedy genre, Weekend at Bernie’s and the wildly funny Ruthless People (for mature audiences), with DeVito as a man who plots to murder his wife (played by Bette Midler). One possible inspiration for this movie is the brilliant British comedy The Ladykillers, about a group of crooks who rent a room from a genuinely sweet old lady. That movie does everything right that this one does wrong. It is scheduled to be remade in 2004 by the Coen brothers (Fargo). Families who’d like to see this situation played for terror may like Pacific Heights with Michael Keaton as the memorably creepy tenant of Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith.