Danny DeVito is one of the most underrated directors of our time. Even his stinkers like “Hoffa” had an undeniable style and freshness. What DeVito does that makes me consider him a master is that he is able to capture the most horrible and nasty facets of the human condition and present them on the screen with the charm and warmth of an Andy Williams holiday special.
Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore are the unlikely leading couple, Alex and Nancy, young New Yorkers searching for a house. They’ve looked at the suburbs, Manhattan and even the slums. However, it is a gorgeous Brooklyn duplex that catches their eye. The only hitch is that the new home comes with an old tenant – an elderly Irish biddy named Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essel). At first she seems to be a sweet old lady, but after they move in, things quickly begin to sour.
Mrs. Connelly begins her underhanded reign of terror by blasting her television late at night (which happens to be right above Alex and Nancy’s bedroom). Things get worse as Mrs. Connelly starts to monopolize Alex’s time when he’s at home. He’s a writer on a deadline, but that doesn’t stop Mrs. Connelly from having him walk her to the grocery store to count grapes. Most of the things Mrs. Connelly does seem relatively mundane when taken individually, but it is the constant build-up of dozens of these things that push Alex and Nancy off the deep end.
DeVito manages to make Mrs. Connelly remind us of the Antichrist and our grandmothers at the same time. And we can’t help but suspect that she does these things on purpose. While I’m sure there are provisions in New York real estate law that would allow Alex and Nancy to take action against their rent-controlled client, very few of us know what these would be. And since Alex and Nancy are new at this whole landlord thing, they don’t know either.
Some of DeVito’s films, like “Matilda” and “Throw Momma From the Train,” have a tiny layer of feel-good film in them. Others like “The War of the Roses” and “Death To Smoochy” (yes, I’m one of the few folks who liked “Smoochy”) have no redeeming value to the characters at all but are still fun to watch.
“Duplex” provides a good mixture of these two types. In the beginning, Alex and Nancy are basically good people who only want a place of their own and a chance to one day have kids. By the end of the film, the two are a darkly twisted duo plotting the death of a little old lady. Yet I still found them charming.
As with any Drew Barrymore movie, she infused herself as a producer. And say what you want to about the former child star, but she is shrewd when it comes to this business. By making herself a producer, she’s protected from being fired from the project unless she completely pulls out on her own volition. It also allows her some freedom to actually eat now and again on the set. Barrymore is one of those rare Hollywood actresses that has meat on her bones, and it is refreshing to see someone on screen who would be considered a heifer by tabloid standards, but actually looks really good (unlike her skeletal co-stars in this summer’s flop “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle”). In fact, there’s a great inside dig at the super-skinny Hollywood actresses with Alex and Nancy’s friends who are four months pregnant with the supermodel-thin mother-to-be not even showing the slightest potbelly.
Stiller gets a few chances to shine with his real strength of reactive comedy. Often he plays the straight man against more flamboyant characters in comedies like “There’s Something About Mary” and “Zoolander.” In “Duplex,” he becomes the foil against Mrs. Connelly’s insanities.
Part of the charm of “Duplex” is that it taps into our own nastiness. Everyone’s had someone in their life that they wish would just keel over. Have we hired professional hit men to take care of these people? Hopefully not. But most of us, on one occasion or another, have daydreamed about it. And usually, like Alex and Nancy, we’ve come up with far more elaborate plans and faux accidents.
“Duplex” is not going to be for everyone. And it is most definitely not the feel-good movie of the year. But if you’re like me, and you enjoy watching films about the dark side of humanity and still be able to enjoy the characters, this one fits the bill.
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