Directed by: Danny DeVito
Starring: Ben Stiller, Drew Barrymore, Eileen Essel, Harvey Fierstein, Robert Wisdom
Rated: PG-13 for sexual content, language and some violence.
Parental Notes: Plenty of slapstick comedy and some dark themes, but little objectionable material for teens or mature preteens.
Nancy (Drew Barrymore) and Alex (Ben Stiller), a young married couple, escape their miniscule Manhattan apartment and move into a beautiful duplex in Brooklyn. It’s a perfect location, complete with a nook where Alex can work on his novel while Nancy commutes to her job as a magazine editor. The only catch is a rent-controlled tenant in the upstairs apartment (Eileen Essel). But little old Mrs. Connelly, their real estate agent assures them, hasn’t been feeling well lately and is an old dear anyway, so there’s no need to worry.
So Nancy and Alex move in, planning for the future when Mrs. Connelly will be gone and they can start their family with the upstairs for a nursery and playroom. Mrs. Connelly, however, turns out to be a nightmare. Far from being about to give up the ghost, she’s vibrant and loud, practicing with her brass ensemble early in the morning on weekends and watching television with the volume turned way up late at night. She demands that Alex help her with plumbing and errands and calls Nancy at work at the worst possible times.
Before long, Alex is cruising the subway trying to catch a killer flu bug that’s going around so he can breathe on Mrs. Connelly and Nancy is fantasizing about throwing her down the stairs.
Director Danny DeVito has found an excellent cast in slow-boiling Stiller, sweet-but-homicidal Barrymore, and disarmingly feisty Essel. Stiller has been reined in a bit so that his tendency to chew scenery and go too far over the top to be funny is muted. He plays well off of Barrymore, who is sweet even when her character is plotting mayhem. The real scene stealer, though, is Essel, who may be 81 but can still hold her own in a fight scene. This is a great trio to carry the film and the supporting cast do well, too.
Unfortunately, “Duplex” is riddled with predictable slapstick and painfully obvious jokes. A number of the jokes are set up so far in advance that it’s hard not to see them coming and cringe. The comedic bits that work are at odds with the ones that don’t, and it’s frustrating to go from a thoroughly funny moment to one that comes straight out of Saturday morning cartoons.
Still, this is a funny movie. There are several sequences that are thoroughly funny, particularly for anyone who knows just how manipulative little old ladies can be. Nancy and Alex’s scheme to install a clapper on Mrs. Connelly’s TV so they can turn it off when she falls asleep in front of it leads to several moments of pure genius. It’s a pity that the rest of the movie doesn’t quite come up to that mark.
“Duplex” is a movie for those who like to watch people suffer: Alex and Nancy suffer at the hands of Mrs. Connelly, and then suffer at their own hands when their attempts to do away with her go comically awry. There’s plenty of slapstick and some fairly gross comedy, but if you’re looking for more intellectual comedy you’d be better off elsewhere.