Duplex is a Danny DeVito picture, so that means certain things are a given. The film will be, for instance, immaculately designed. The color scheme will lean toward dark, deep shades (Duplex‘s 19th-century Brooklyn house lends itself to this perfectly), and the entire movie will have a rich, heavily saturated look. The performances will be, at the very least, good, and at the very best, verging on brilliant. And finally, the movie will likely be a black comedy that will certainly turn out to have a heart of purest mush.
These things have been with us since DeVito’s 1987 feature-film directorial debut, Throw Momma From the Train, which was marketed as a black comedy (every gag that qualified on this level was crammed into the trailer), but was actually a rather sweet one. (The scene where DeVito, who also stars in the Momma, shows Billy Crystal his coin collection is one of the most touching little moments I can recall in any film.) Even DeVito’s most hard-edged comedy, The War of the Roses (1989), backs down when it comes to the bit where Kathleen Turner has supposedly cooked and fed Michael Douglas’ dog to him; DeVito inserts (possibly during some post-production cop-out) a shot of Bowser afterwards to show that they’re only fooling. DeVito’s last effort, Death to Smoochy (2002), ran along blithely, being as mean and viciously funny as it could for five reels, only to drop in an improbable happy ending in the sixth.
In light of all this, I wasn’t in the least surprised — or disappointed — to find the same dynamic at work in Duplex, which resembles a more desperate version of Momma than anything else. Indeed, it could have been called Throw Momma From the Brownstone.
I was surprised to find wholesale borrowings from Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers — especially since that 1955 classic is being officially remade by the Coen brothers with Tom Hanks (!) in the role originated by Alec Guinness (what are the Coens thinking?). But what else can you make of a movie based on the botched efforts of supposedly clever people to bump off an inconvenient and supposedly sweet little old lady — especially one with a comic parrot (here improbably named Little Dick) and a brass band obviously cribbed from Guinness’ phony string quartet?
Duplex is just a little too like The Ladykillers to call it happenstance — and it appears even more so in light of DeVito and Mackendrick’s similar styles. This doesn’t keep it from having its own occasional joys, however — and the Coens will be amazingly lucky if their own little old lady is anywhere near as good as Eileen Essel (a virtually unknown 81-year-old who had a role in a low-budget British film called Ali G Inda House). Still, such obvious borrowing raises some questions about the originality of the film’s original screenplay. And that might be less bothersome if the movie on the whole worked better.
While parts of Duplex are very funny and sharp, other sections are appallingly ordinary. Nearly everything directly involving Essel’s Mrs. Connelly is wonderful — and she is just plain brilliant as the little old lady from hell, who attaches herself to her new landlords when they buy her rent-controlled ($88 a month) building. Part of her success comes from the screenplay itself by Simpsons writer Larry Doyle and Ben Stiller specialist John Hamburg (Meet the Parents and Zoolander, and who doubles as an actor near the film’s climax).
Although clearly patterned on Anne Ramsey’s Momma, Mrs. Connelly is more complex, and more developed. First, she’s presented by high-pressure real-estate salesman Harvey Fierstein as a sweet little old lady who’s not long for this world. Then her health takes a turn for the better, and the sweetness starts to fall away as she becomes more obviously an opinionated, self-serving manipulator — and it doesn’t stop there. Without giving too much away, I urge you to wait for the moment when the veil is finally dropped, and you’ll witness one of the most intriguing shifting of gears in a script in some time.
But script aside, Essel’s performance rates an unqualified “wow” — no matter what can be said about the rest of the movie. Unfortunately, there is a rest of the movie. And despite game efforts by Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore, most of it simply doesn’t work.
The pair make an appealing screen team, and they have a few good moments (watch their expressions as they try to figure out just how old Mrs. Connelly must be). However, they’re ultimately not convincing, and are all too often merely straight men for Essel’s character.
DeVito errs badly, too, in grafting on a couple of bits of gross-out comedy that seem to have wandered in from some classless teen flick. By the time Duplex reaches its wrap-up scene — which at least makes it clear why there seems to be only one policeman in the whole of Brooklyn — the film seems more contrived than inspired.
There are good things in DeVito’s new movie, and Essel really does make the whole thing seem worthwhile. Still, Duplex isn’t the film it might have been.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke