As a director, Danny DeVito's previous film was "Death to Smoochy" in 2002. He's on a roll. "Duplex," from 2003, is just as bad. Indeed, it's even less funny.
DeVito has an impish mean streak in him that comes out in his movies. Like "Death to Smoochy" and "Throw Momma from the Train," his "Duplex" is a dark comedy, but this time there is literally no one in it to like.
Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore play a married couple, Alex Rose and Nancy Kendricks, looking for living space in or around New York City, but on their limited income that's a tough prospect. He's a struggling novelist and she's a layout designer with a publishing firm. Their choices for living arrangements range from huts to hovels. Until a shady real-estate agent (Harvey Fierstein) shows them an apartment that's too good to be true. For a reasonable amount of money they get a two-bedroom home with three fireplaces, a huge dining room, inlaid tile, and stained-glass windows. But there's a catch. It's a duplex, and upstairs lives a sweet, little old lady, Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essel), who's been there forever. They notice she's just a little odd, but they go ahead with the deal, anyway. For instance, Mrs. Connelly claims to have been married for fifty-eight years before her husband died in 1963. Alex and Nancy don't even try to do the math; they just figure the old lady's senile, and take the place.
Then things begin to go wrong. The old lady starts bugging them to death. She pesters Alex unmercifully all day long to fix things and take her places; she plays her television at high volume into the wee hours of the night; and she practices upstairs with her lady friends in a band ensemble. Alex and Nancy try everything to get rid of her, but she won't take the hint. Driven to distraction, the couple decide to kill her.
So, in the first half of the movie, the old crone drives the couple nuts, and in the second half, the couple try to bump her off. It's a slender premise for a story, and the action almost never expands beyond the couple's apartment. The result is that the picture feels one-dimensional, closed-in, and claustrophobic.
Worse, the gags never get beyond the yawn stage and certainly never reach the guffaw dimensions they should have if the picture was to be successful. Fact is, almost none of the film's comedy works. The characters are petty and mean, from Alex and Nancy's dim-witted attempts at murder to the old lady's calculated cruelty to the cop (Robert Wisdom) who unaccountably takes sides with the old woman to Alex and Nancy's fair-weather friends (Justin Theroux) to Alex's impatient publisher (Swoosie Kurtz) to Nancy's grumpy boss (Wallace Shawn) to the professional pornographer-cum-hit-man (James Remar) they finally hire in desperation. You add up all these unpleasant people, and you get one decidedly unpleasant picture.
What should have been a zany, screwball black comedy in the manner of "Arsenic and Old Lace" becomes tedious and dull as we pity the couple rather than laugh at their dilemma. Maybe we've seen Stiller too often as the loser in these kinds of situations and have begun to tire of the routine. Maybe we just see him as such dumbhead here, we don't care what happens to him or his wife. When Alex can't stand the old lady's interruptions of his writing any longer, he packs up his laptop and heads to the corner bar to write, where he finds even more distractions. It never occurs to him to try the corner library?
The film gets more exaggerated as it goes along, losing credibility along the way since the exaggerations are not in the least bit funny. By the time Alex's laptop is run over by a truck, the screwball aspects of the film have been depleted, and we're left only with groans. In desperation, the filmmakers resort to grossness, with Nancy literally puking on Alex. It was then that the few smiles "Duplex" occasionally brought to my face turned to pure boredom.
Finally, the movie ends with a wholly unnecessary and disappointing coda, concluding what probably should never have been started in the first place. The Wife-O-Meter left the room at about the thirty-minute mark. Had I not been reviewing the film, I would have left with her.
The movie is presented in two screen formats, rather extravagantly spread out over two discs. There's the movie's original aspect ratio, measuring an approximate 1.74:1 anamorphic ratio, and there's a 1.33:1, pan-and-scan ratio for people with regular TVs who would rather fill up their entire screen with a blowup of the middle two-thirds of each frame rather than watch the picture the way it was intended.
The anamorphic widescreen is quite good, a healthy bit rate ensuring deep colors and few jittery lines. A light grain is sometimes present but never distracting, darker areas of the screen are occasionally a bit murky, and skin tones can be slightly veiled, but it's nothing to worry over. Beyond the moment or two it took me to measure and compare the two versions, I wouldn't consider watching the P&S rendering.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound reproduction comes to life when it's needed but mostly stays neatly tucked away for a rainy day. The front stereo spread is wide, and dialogue clarity is excellent. Otherwise, there is little to comment on. The rear channels are used sparingly, mainly in musical ambience reinforcement, but, interestingly, when the old lady gets a surround-sound system for her apartment and cranks it up, the movie's soundtrack finally has something to do and delivers the goods.
There's not much in the way of extras on the disc to compensate for the dreariness of the film. There are three deleted scenes in pan-and-scan; a brief, three-and-a-half minute promotional featurette; and some Sneak Peeks at other Miramax films. That's it. What's more, there are only seventeen scene selections. Well, there's not much to see, in any case. English and French are the spoken language choices, with Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.
I wish I could have said nicer things about "Duplex." Ben Stiller has shown his comic talents in other films, and Drew Barrymore can be a charming and funny lady when the occasion arises. But here they are simply victims of a flat, drab script that allows them little to do but look helplessly on whilst cruelties and abuse pile up around them. It's one thing to laugh at the misfortunes of another; it's what black comedy is all about. But it's quite another thing to feel nothing but sympathy and sorrow for the main characters. What this little comedy needed was a little...comedy.