I expected to dislike this admittedly ungainly first-time bout of auterism from David Duchovny more than I did. Maybe the fact that reading that Robin Williams plays a mentally challenged character in the movie had simply prepared me for something far, far worse than The House of D.
No, it’s not a good movie, and I wouldn’t actually recommend it to anyone, but at least it’s somewhere in between a good first effort and a fascinating train wreck. Hardcore Duchovny devotees will probably find more to admire than the average viewer, though they may be disappointed by the fact that he only appears at the beginning and ending of the movie, since the bulk of the film is given over to a 13-year-old incarnation of his character, Tommy Warshaw (Anton Yelchin, Hearts in Atlantis).
And right there you have the clue as to where House of D goes wrong. Could anything be more awkwardly cliched than a first-time effort that features a coming-of-age story wrapped in a framing story? Well, yes, something could, and Duchovny manages to demonstrate that fact with terrifying clarity by stuffing the narrative full of even more cliches, including a dysfunctional mother (Tea Leoni), a cozy, mentally-challenged man-child (Williams), an incredibly wise black advisor (Erykah Badu, The Cider House Rules) and a well-intentioned but bizarrely shortsighted priest (Frank Langella).
It’s a bewildering array of hoary ideas made just that much worse by improbabilities and insurmountable plot holes. (Are we really supposed to believe that a 13-year-old boy can just hop on a plane to France — seemingly sans passport — and live there on his own until such time as he starts selling his drawings to fashion magazines?)
All this is even harder to understand when you see how savvy Duchovny is, both as a director and in terms of constructing the story itself. If the material had been foisted on him by a studio as an assignment, you’d feel he’d done a pretty credible job of making something out of it. But Duchovny did it all to himself.
Considering the fact that the flashback narrative is set in 1973 — the same year that Duchovny himself turned 13 — it’s tempting to suspect that a vein of autobiography is at work, but there’s nothing to suggest that’s actually the case here, other than the similarity in age. Duchovny didn’t run away to France to become an artist; he went to Princeton and nearly got a doctorate in English literature before chucking school to pursue acting. Maybe the film is some form of wish-fulfillment fantasy; perhaps he wishes he’d gone to France. Whatever the reason, the result is a movie that feels like it was written by a really precocious teenager imagining his future and how it might grow out of his present.
One thing is certain: Cliches and all, Duchovny has what can only be called a singular view of adolescence. Not only is Tommy’s mother dysfunctional, she has a more than slightly abnormal attachment to her son, which includes constantly invading the bathroom while he’s showering (Tommy never heard of door locks, it seems) and going ballistic when he shows an interest in girls. (That Duchovny cast his real-life wife as his own mother is a consideration I prefer not to consider.)
On the other hand, Tommy’s best (and possibly only) friend, the mentally challenged Pappass — who gets an erection while watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (“I love horror movies”) with Tommy — has a similarly possessive attitude concerning the kid and girls. There’s clearly some heavy subtext to all this, but damned if I quite get the point.
With this to work from, it’s not all that surprising that Tommy would take advice from “Lady Bernadette” (Badu), an inmate at the women’s house of detention (the “House of D”), who converses with Tommy from her cell window while trying to coerce him into getting her a dime bag of marijuana. That her advice — wise though it is, in strictly movie terms — brings about nothing but misery is perhaps unimportant. The very fact that she sounds more reasonable than mom or Pappass is possibly enough.
What is remarkable is that some of this actually works on its own terms, and Duchovny frequently handles it with great skill. (Anyone who can imbue cigarette butts floating in a toilet bowl with emotional resonance is not lacking in talent!) Moreover, the 1973 period is nicely evoked, with an interesting attention to detail. Not only is the charming scene perfectly in period where Tommy falls asleep with his first love, Melissa (played by Robin Williams’ daughter, Zelda Williams), while listening to Elton John’s album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road — but the needle on the record is actually in the right place as it plays the song “Harmony.”
That kind of touch almost goes beyond detail to the level of obsessive, but it’s also the kind of thing that makes House of D intriguing, even though the film is several notches away from good. Rated PG-13 for sexual and drug references, thematic elements and language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke