'Duplex's humor falls short

If Duplex were an apartment instead of a movie, you'd say that it needs tidying up.

There are some funny gags and clever ideas in this film, but they're spread out all over the place, piled haphazardly atop one another. Director Danny DeVito and first-time screenwriter Larry Doyle won't be getting the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for this one, let alone an Oscar.


Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore are Alex and Nancy. He's a serious novelist. She works at a magazine. Together, they're what used to be called a yuppie couple.

Early in the film, they buy a spectacular, just-barely-affordable duplex in Brooklyn with three fireplaces.


There is, however, one catch: The place has an upstairs apartment with a tenant who, thanks to rent-control regulations, can't be forced out.

At first, the snowy-haired Mrs. Connelly seems like a nice old Irish widow.

But soon enough, when her television isn't blasting at full volume, she's clogging up her kitchen drain. And that's really just the beginning of the inconveniences, assaults and indignities that the aged tenant inflicts on her hapless landlords.

What director DeVito is trying for here is an old-fashioned dark comedy, along the lines of his Throw Momma From the Train and The War of the Roses. What he ends up with is more effective than the former but not as wickedly funny as the latter.

And as for his deadly Death to Smoochy of last year, it's kinder not to dwell on it.

In Duplex, at least the cast is fun to watch.

As the situation becomes increasingly desperate, Stiller does an amusing slow burn. The bright-eyed Barrymore, meanwhile, keeps giving off hopeful vibes until that is no longer possible.

Eileen Essell, a stage-and-television actress in her 80s, has a wonderful intensity in the role of Mrs. Connelly. She convinces you that she believes herself to be an innocent victim of fate, even as she goes about manipulating Alex and Nancy.


Rounding out the cast are Harvey Fierstein, Robert Wisdom, Swoosie Kurtz and Wallace Shawn.

Duplex is one of those movies that seems to be slapped together from spare parts. Often, the individual scenes don't fit with each other. In one, for example, Mrs. Connelly stops breathing and Alex gives her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. When she revives, she thinks he's sexually molesting her.

The problem is, she seems to pretty much forget about this in later scenes.

After this sort of thing happens a few times, you start to feel you're keeping better track of the narrative than the filmmakers are.

The building may have two beautiful stories, but Duplex itself has barely one.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.



Starring Ben Stiller, Drew Barrymore, Eileen Essell

Directed by Danny DeVito

Released by Miramax

Time: 90 minutes

Rated PG-13 (sexual content, language and some violence)


Sun Score: **